Hey Arnold!’s Thanksgiving episode is about making peace with your own weirdness

Hey Arnold!’s Thanksgiving episode is about making peace with your own weirdness

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This month: Thanksgiving on TV.

“Arnold’s Thanksgiving,” original airdate 11/18/1998

In which Thanksgiving is celebrated with passive aggression, American flags, and fireworks…

Sonia Saraiya: Continuing the tradition of my total ignorance for beloved television shows, this is the first Hey Arnold! episode I’ve ever seen—and I really loved it. It started its run on Nickelodeon just as I was moving past cartoons and into the wonderful world of pre-teen live-action series, but I’m sad I missed this as a kid. Helga would have been an important character for me as a child. The way she’s crafted—she’s both wholly frustrating and wholly empathetic.

“Arnold’s Thanksgiving” follows Helga and Arnold from the Thanksgiving pageant at P.S. 118 to their own disappointing Thanksgivings at home. Arnold stays characteristically optimistic, while his grandmother breaks out fireworks and the grill, because she thinks it’s The Fourth Of July. Helga, of course, is the princess of pessimism as her older sister Olga makes her do all the work, but takes all the credit for it. Regardless, both Arnold and Helga feel wistful for the pumpkin pie and turkey they acted out at the play, and leave their homes, winding up at their teacher’s house to discover his Thanksgiving sucks too. This illustrates the idea that things always suck, but at least it’s your suck. That might sound cynical, but the episode is isn’t. Helga and Arnold accept, a little grudgingly, that even though their Thanksgivings are weird, their families are amazing. And both families in turn learn that the kids are old enough to have wants and needs on a holiday, and that there’s room to respect that.

I can relate to Arnold and Helga’s struggle. As a kid, holidays feel like they’re supposed to be a certain way. You long to be part of something bigger, which manifests in a tantrum about whether your centerpiece is going to make it to the dinner table. Arnold and Helga want to fit in, but the adults in their lives make that routinely impossible.

What’s especially interesting about “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is that it somewhat calls out television, on television. I got a lot of my preconceived notions about American holidays through stuff I saw on TV—and I imagine that Helga and Arnold did, too. What I love about this episode is that it tries to strike a note of discord against that “perfect” Thanksgiving pictured onscreen (or in a school pageant). A lot of growing up is about accepting what we are and where we come from. Television can make that really hard, especially for kids. It presents a whole world of alternative narratives and desires that can make our own lives feel bland and empty.

So it’s really lovely to see both Arnold and Helga returning to the fold at the end of the episode. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it seems to me like the subtext of this story is one of immigrant alienation—which would jibe with the show’s working-class, Brooklyn sensibility. The jazz soundtrack and the urban landscape complement each other well, creating a setting that is lively, but lonely. The scenes where Arnold and Helga are wandering around alone are gorgeous, and even the Mayflower bit has surprising meaning because it happens in the midst of the city.

The arc of the episode is a bit predictable—Arnold and Helga’s initial disappointment with their families to their ultimate acceptance of them is the arc of a thousand Thanksgiving episodes. But it’s still funny and moving. More, it’s humane in a way that includes the audience rather than repels them. “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” isn’t giving us that picture-perfect American Thanksgiving, but it’s still embracing the idea that Thanksgiving is important. Call me a sap, but that is really sweet.

Pilot Viruet: Out of all the animated shows on Nickelodeon that I loved as a child, Hey Arnold! is the one that has stuck with me the most. It’s no coincidence that it’s also the most human of the bunch (in every sense of the word—my other favorites featured monsters, wallabies, and angry beavers). It was a show that felt extremely real, and an episode like “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” still feels relevant.

Granted, I never celebrated The Fourth Of July on Thanksgiving, nor did I sneak off to my teacher’s house. But having high expectations for holidays that often result in disappointing celebrations is a fairly universal feeling. Generally, I’m not a fan of most holiday-themed episodes (particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas) for the reasons Sonia mentioned above: the disconnect between preconceived notions and reality. (Though it’s also possible that I’m just a big ol’ Grinch.)

Thanksgiving is the perfect time for sitcoms to really ramp up the high jinks, like the turkey falling on the floor, or the nasty in-laws visiting, or men refusing to stop watching football. What I like about “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is that it goes deeper than these little misunderstandings. It’s not afraid to show real melancholy and disappointment, which is especially brave because Hey Arnold! is a children’s show. Arnold’s grandmother confusing Thanksgiving with The Fourth Of July is a silly and funny detail (and I love the scene where Harold runs down the street blabbing about Arnold’s Ben Franklin costume), but it also touches on Grandma’s total break from reality and Arnold’s longing for a “normal” family. At the Patakis, Big Bob is so into football that he ignores his daughter, Helga is battling feelings of inadequacy when her older sister visits, and Miriam is sleepwalking the day away (there are a lot of hints throughout the series that she’s depressed and possibly an alcoholic). Neither of the kids are having a good Thanksgiving, let alone a perfect one.

Helga’s story is particularly interesting. She has always been one of my absolute favorite female characters on television. Throughout the series, she’s notoriously up-and-down, switching seamlessly between girly lovesick swoons and violent outbursts. She puts on such a tough-girl act in school (teasing Arnold, ordering around Phoebe, punching boys on the bus) that it’s nice to see her excited about something, like her centerpiece for the dinner table, or the hope that maybe her entire family will all hang out together. It’s also why it’s so sad to see her disappointment. She channels this into anger at the dinner table, eventually leading to her ditching the family. (Side note: In a middle school typing class, we had to write about Thanksgiving and I quoted Helga’s “I am thankful for absolutely nothing!”—assuming, for some reason, that my teacher would understand the reference. She had never seen Hey Arnold! and called my parents). Helga is insecure in a common way, but there are also many deeper issues within her character. Even her love for Arnold is a reflection of this; her crush began when they were both children, on a day when her family ignored her and she wandered away alone, only to run into Arnold who cared enough to help her out.

Helga’s family does care, though, even if she has to temporarily disappear in order to learn that. What’s great is that her family doesn’t totally change within a few hours—Olga manages to be narcissistic even when making “missing” posters and Big Bob is still glued to his football. But they did miss her, and they make changes for her. There are similar compromises at Arnold’s household: He gets to have his Thanksgiving, but they still set off fireworks. Both Arnold and Helga eventually get their celebrations, however flawed they may be. I love that last shot of the fireworks going off as the Mayflower is being lifted out of the water, showing that anything can be salvaged. 

Brandon Nowalk: Pilot, you captured much of my reaction to this beautiful episode. I wasn’t a Nickelodeon kid, with the rare exceptions of Guts, Legends Of The Hidden Temple, and whenever I was brave enough for Are You Afraid Of The Dark? Like you, Sonia, I was aging out of cartoons when Hey Arnold! debuted. I vividly remember seeing the first promos and realizing I was getting older. But “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is one of those episodes that you can’t really age out of. It has its childish features, but the core burns hot for adults. I wonder if Arnold and Helga really learn their families are amazing, though. It seems to me they just learn their families are who they’re stuck with—but their families are stuck with them too. It isn’t Frank Darabont, but the funniest thing in the episode is when the Mayflower crashes. Once you’ve accepted the world is disappointing, there is a certain comedy to it, especially when it’s that over-the-top. What’re you going to do?

Sonia mentioned the one element that nagged me the whole way through—although “jazz soundtrack” is a criminal euphemism—It’s like the audio is trying to compete with the video. There’s a heavy curtain of music and sound effects and loud vocal work. Even on Arnold and Helga’s melancholy sidewalk stroll, a sad piano mingles with cars honking and police sirens, although voice actors Phillip Van Dyke and Francesca Smith are a lot gentler when isolated from their hectic families. (“What a stupid idea,” Helga says, and then Arnold takes her by the hand, and she changes her mind mid-sentence, finishing, “Okay!”) The soundtrack is working overtime to keep the energy up for the little ones, but I can’t deny it creates that sense of a “lively, but lonely” city that Sonia pegged. Arnold and Helga walk out to the dock, the only people around, but then all of a sudden there’s a ship full of people, and when that crashes, don’t worry, rescue boats are there in a jiff. It’s like the city is made up of little pockets and alleys where everyone can be alone together.

On the other hand, the visuals tell this story so vividly you could watch it on mute, if Arnold and Helga’s thoughts weren’t so irresistible. The sky is overcast, so all the colors of the city are rich, but quiet—not glowing in the light, but not dull either. Arnold strolls beneath the saddest “Mayflower Reenactment” banner imaginable, drooping across the prison bars of the bridge. Lots of early diagonals emphasize the drama—a close-up on Arnold looking glum over the Mayflower as a crowd cheers, a high-angle gargoyle shot of Helga making a face in her dressing room mirror—but notice how they settle down when, yep, right on cue, Thanksgiving is definitely disappointing again. The feast in the play is square, the look down the dock is square, the peer through Mr. Simmons’ window is square. So it’s all the more moving when Arnold’s family surprises him with Thanksgiving plus fireworks, and as the credits roll and the fireworks launch, we get one last exciting Dutch angle down their street. The clouds have broken up, stars pepper the luminous blue, and the world has come back to life.  

Even the character designs tell the story. Before Mr. Simmons’ mother, Pearl, ever says a word, she does three things in the back- and foreground of a shot of Mr. Simmons. She walks into frame stone-faced, while he’s celebrating the fact that they’re all there together, she gives the door a suspicious side-eye when Arnold and Helga knock, and then she bares her teeth, bracing for impact. It’s hilarious. Add in the little details like the seagull too depressed to fly away when Arnold and Helga walk past, and “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is a treat for kids and adults alike.

David Sims: See, I was a total Nickelodeon kid. I was basically not allowed to watch anything that wasn’t PBS until I figured out how to work the remote, and then it was all Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network all the time. I reared myself on a TV diet of Nicktoons (and Guts, ooh, Guts. Good call on that one, Brandon). For some reason, as a kid, I was totally resistant to Hey Arnold!, which hit the air when I was 10 (Sonia, you were off cartoons by age 10? Some pretentious kid you were!). I was big into the more fanciful and obviously strange cartoons, like Ren & Stimpy or Rocko’s Modern Life or Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Hey Arnold! was a little too real for me. I wanted escapism, and I also think that the show’s slower, more naturalistic style rubbed me the wrong way. I was a kid, guys. I watched a lot of Jonny Quest. My opinions weren’t ironclad genius. Still, it means that I’ve never really caught up with the show as a grown-up. 

But man, watching “Arnold’s Thanksgiving,” I take back everything 10-year-old David thought about this show. It remains a little uncomfortably real, but now I’m grown-up enough to appreciate that. Hey Arnold! is a show about kids doing their best with whatever weird circumstances they might have (something everyone can relate to, no matter what the details of your adolescence) and it’s a cartoon that never seems to go for the easy joke or the obvious story beat. There’s characters in this episode, like Arnold and Helga’s teacher, who could be dialed up a lot more to drive the same point home, but the show resists and it’s better off for it.

Even when I was a kid waiting for Rocko to come on, I always loved Helga. She’s such a tremendous character. I always identified with the character filling her “tough-talker” role in any of these shows—Angelica in Rugrats, or Buttercup in Powerpuff Girls—but Helga is working on a much deeper level. I like what Pilot noted about how up-and-down she is. It’s played for laughs, obviously, that she bullies Arnold so mercilessly, while pining for him secretly. But it’s not entirely a joke—it’s more of an underlying concern about her character that struggles to reveal her feelings because she doesn’t know what to make of her feelings half the time. Arnold is a much blander, blanker slate (another reason I didn’t love the show when I was a kid—its hero is a bit too nice and normal), but that works to reflect all of Helga’s weird complicated difficulties.

God, I choked up at the end when she goes back home and her family had been all worried about her. This isn’t like “Jurassic Bark” or some similarly weepy episode of animated TV that’s just emotionally harrowing. Hey Arnold!’s great strength lies in how understated it is in every way—the art, the characterization, the plotting. It’s not subdued or sleepy, but it’s also not leaning on the obvious tricks most of these shows deployed to win quick approval from their young audiences.

BN: I agree with everyone about Helga, by far the most interesting character in “Arnold’s Thanksgiving,” but I don’t want to give Arnold short shrift. His vein of young, idealistic optimism leads to Sue Heck on The Middle and Warren on Trophy Wife. Just before the Mayflower crashes, there’s another great moment of what’re-you-gonna-do comedy. He takes Helga out to the end of the pier, and he says, “Maybe we should try to look on the bright side.” Helga responds in her typical way, “What bright side, Football Head?” And he says, “We have this beautiful view,” gesturing to a half-sunk boat tied to the pier next to some cups and bottles floating along. In another episode, maybe Arnold would have raised his head a bit to the colorful skyscrapers across the way. In “Arnold’s Thanksgiving,” the world is trash. You can’t even expect your boat to be there in the morning. But still he tries to will the scene into beauty.

Grandpa sees a real silver lining to his bonkers holiday celebration. When Arnold asks why they can’t have Thanksgiving in November every year, he says, “Well, we could, but then we’d be like everyone else. What fun would that be?” The death-march tuba rendition of the national anthem from the scene before is still ringing in our ears, and suddenly there is a certain beauty to the haphazard, explosive Fourth Of July Thanksgiving. Everyone’s pitching in to live up to a fantasy. Which leads to one of the themes brought about by Arnold’s gloomy day: The national myths have been sanitized, and not just the foundational ones. When the Pilgrims break bread with the Native Americans on Hey Arnold!, there’s no maize. The Mayflower sinks. And that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving doesn’t happen anywhere. People are more complicated than that, and thankfully so.

SS: I think what we’re all finding is a distinct element of the tragic underlying Hey Arnold!. As Pilot said above: Helga’s mom is depressive or an alcoholic (which, yikes); her father is almost violent; her sister is self-absorbed. And I’m sure that there is a story for what happened to Arnold’s parents, but even coming into it without watching any of the other episodes, it’s clear that there’s something not quite right about Arnold growing up effectively orphaned with loving, but slightly senile grandparents, with a crowd of rough boarders rounding out the family. It’s possible to see the bright side of that, and “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” makes the most of it, but this is not a carefree, happy sitcom. This is a collection of checkered pasts  (and Brandon, perhaps America’s checkered past is one of them). Arnold’s stubborn optimism is almost necessary to counterbalance all that.

What’s nice about a show that takes risks like this—especially one aimed at kids—is that in portraying other segments of society in realistic and heartfelt ways, it draws many more viewers into the lives of the characters. Television can be merely entertaining or merely fun, but it’s lovely to find a program that wants to be entertaining, fun, and humane, to try to say something powerful and connect to a viewership that might otherwise feel marginalized by television. And it makes me a little teary thinking about how this is aimed at kids. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m really happy this episode of this show exists.

PV: It breaks my heart that you all didn’t watch Hey Arnold! as children, but I’m so glad that you’re enjoying it now. I’ve watched the series a lot as an adult, and it holds up, so I hope you’ll watch more of it. As for the music, Brandon, I had actually never noticed just how much of it there was throughout “Arnold’s Thanksgiving,” aside from the twinkly Olga cues that I found funny in an irritating sort of way. Maybe I’ve watched it so much that I subconsciously tune it out. The show does lean toward a jazzy vibe (the Dino Spumoni episodes are very good, by the way) that works well with the setting. I’ve always loved the sound design in Hey Arnold!, but the music here is a little overkill, not because I dislike the tunes (confession: I still own a Nicktoons CD), but because I’d rather hear the other sounds of the city: the seagulls in the distance, the sirens, and the stray dogs barking as the kids walk down the sidewalk.

Yes, Arnold does occasionally fade into the background. It’s less to do with him personally (though I do agree that he can seem a bit bland at times) and more to do with the fact that characters like Helga tend to demand attention. He is too nice and incredibly optimistic and sometimes comes off as the straight man in comparison to the rest of his classmates, which is why the show likes to throw him into situations that challenge him. But, like everyone else, there is hidden darkness in his character. He’s just quieter about it.

“Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is one of a handful of episodes where his optimism wavers a bit. He complains about Thanksgiving from the very beginning, he’s quick to leave his family’s celebration, and even at the pier, he doesn’t seem to believe what he’s saying. It’s an understandable reaction to a frustrating day (He can’t even catch a break from the vending machine!), but it’s also a reflection of larger problems. Both Helga and Arnold keep mentioning the concept of a “real” Thanksgiving, because they’ve never had one. For Helga, it’s because of her dysfunctional family. For Arnold, it’s because he doesn’t have parents, his grandparents are often losing their minds, and he lives with a group of weirdos that aren’t related to him. There’s nothing conventional or “real” about any Thanksgiving he’ll ever have. Still, that’s why I also love Grandpa’s “What fun would that be?” response. A “real” Thanksgiving could also be a boring one, which is why Grandpa embraces this strange celebration. And once Arnold can make his peace with it, he can embrace it too.

Next time: Todd VanDerWerff and company have a take-out Thanksgiving with The Bob Newhart Show and "Over The River And Through The Woods." After that, the third Roundtable group sits down with the "Thanksgiving Orphans" of the Cheers gang. (The latter episode is available on Netflix.)