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How Arthur became TV’s longest-running animated children’s show

The groundbreaking PBS adaptation of Marc Brown's bestselling book series taught empathy, tackled big issues, and much more
Gif: Karl Gustafson, Image: Courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation
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For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers Arthur, which ran for 25 seasons on PBS and aired its series finale last month

“It’s a simple message, and it comes from the heart: believe in yourself, ’cause that’s the place to start.”

That is a simple message, and it’s one that kicks off every episode—all 253 of them—of Arthur. The cheery sound of steel drums and peppy lilt of Ziggy Marley make “Believe In Yourself” a catchy theme song, for sure, but the lyrics make it an anthem. Written by Judy Henderson and Jerry de Villiers Jr. and performed by Marley and the Melody Makers, the cut nicely supports the show’s thesis: that loving yourself will lead to unity, because our diversity makes us stronger.

The message resonated, as Arthur holds the title of longest-running kid’s animated show in history. On February 21, the show came to an end with four special episodes to wrap up its 25-year run.

The PBS series follows the anthropomorphic, titular protagonist Arthur Read, his family (his spunky and spirited sister D.W. is one of the series’ breakout stars), and his close squad of school chums, including Buster Baxter, Francine Frensky, Muffy Crosswire, and Alan “The Brain” Powers.

The story originated from Marc Brown’s children’s books, first published in 1976. When PBS approached Brown to translate Arthur’s adventures from page to screen in 1994, the TV landscape had its share of entertainment-driven animated children’s shows, like Nickelodeon’s Rugrats and Fox Kids’ X-Men.

And while PBS was no stranger to mixing education with entertainment in its youth programming, at the time those shows were primarily live-action (think Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street—though the latter had long featured the occasional animated segment). Its first full-on foray into animation wasn’t until The Magic School Bus landed in 1994. With the premiere of Arthur on October 7, 1996, a specific niche was filled: an educational and entertaining cartoon that was more accessible to young viewers of all economic brackets than what was being shown on cable.

Arthur struck a chord with industry and consumers alike, winning four Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program, a 2000 Peabody Award, and the 2003 Best International BAFTA Children’s Award. Beyond the accolades, the series demonstrated impressive longevity in an ever-evolving medium. So how did Arthur engage kids so that they wanted to return for more?

Basically, Arthur created a space where kids’ opinions, feelings, and experiences mattered. The storylines and dialogue never belittled nor condescended to its audience, but instead honored the high emotional stakes of its characters’ circumstances. The plot was viewed from an authentic child lens, while still offering the wisdom of an adult through its conclusive life lessons.

“We, as adults, owe children the truth,” Brown told NPR. “They’re trying to make a foundation on which they can build their lives, and if there isn’t truth in that foundation, things get pretty shaky.”

Over its 250-plus episodes (and seven specials), the writers of Arthur expertly articulated truthful perspectives about a variety of childhood experiences, from fleeting embarrassing moments to more sizable traumas. Yet each situation was examined with care and respect, with no subject outranking another in validity.

Take for instance, the season three episode “Arthur Rides The Bandwagon,” when Arthur feels left out when his friends bond over the hot new toy Woogles. While his Grandma Thora gently advises that trends come and go, Arthur learns that organically, arriving at the conclusion through his own experience.

Even the episodes with more obvious lessons—the ones with plot points on, say, cheating at a board games, stealing credit for work, and swearing—aren’t too heavy-handed. Rather, they’re presented without judgment or dismissal, which offered a space for young viewers to learn and grow right along with the characters. Anger management and conflict resolution, too—topics often dealt with and explained sternly—is discussed in relatable ways.

Take season one’s “Meek For A Week,” in which Muffy bets Francine that she can’t be nice for a week. (Before the wager, Francine’s temper makes her play belligerently with her hockey team and put down her pals.) During the week in question, Francine visibly struggles. In the end, she returns to her aggressive playing mindset, but this time tempers her actions and supports her teammates instead.

And lest we forget, “Arthur’s Big Hit” from season four, the source of the popular “Arthur Fist” meme. After punching D.W. for breaking the model airplane he had worked on, Arthur experiences his own hit from “Tough Customer” member Binky Barnes. While Arthur had been told by numerous friends that knocking down D.W. wasn’t the way to let his anger out, it isn’t until he is on the receiving end that he understands.

Arthur also nurtured audiences’ minds with exposure to the arts, with a guest star roster including poet Jack Prelutsky and figure skater Michelle Kwan. Season four’s “My Music Rules” introduces kiddies to two famous musicians through a proverbial musical boxing match, as D.W. goes head-to-head with Arthur and Francine about which musician should perform at the Elwood City Library: classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma or jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman. Instead of a brawl, both musicians respect and praise each other’s music.

Music and reading live close to the core of Arthur, with no better example than the mostly sung-through season three episode “Arthur’s Almost Live Not So Real Music Festival,” featuring stand-alone songs about the characters’ lives. The episode is bookended with another legendary anthem, this time about libraries and the joy of reading, and the lyrics “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card” are probably still on the tip of many millennials’ tongues.

“Only on Arthur could you do a takeoff of The Odyssey, Waiting For Godot, or Frankenstein, writer and creative producer Kathy Waugh—who also helped develop the series—told the podcast Finding D.W. “That’s what made it work over however many seasons. We never got bored.”

“Not boring” is Arthur’s signature style: disguising vegetables as dessert, and making the learning exciting. In between the lessons is always a healthy dose of fun and humor, whether its’ about making up a holiday to combat the winter blues or obsessing over cootie catchers.

Arthur also tackles larger societal issues. Muffy Crosswire and her family offer continued class commentary throughout the series, as their privilege as the only wealthy family sharply contrasts the rest of the working-class community. The Crosswires are also at the center of the discussion of book-banning and censorship in season one’s “The Scare-Your-Pants-Off Club.”

In 2020, digital shorts were created to provide the Arthur perspective on a variety of relevant topics, like hand-washing and wearing a mask, talking about racism, and participating in elections. It wasn’t the first time Arthur got topical: Season seven’s “April 9th” was a response to the September 11th attacks and discussed how to deal with tragedy.

Just as in the theme song, the differences between characters aren’t just tolerated, but celebrated. Whether it’s divorced parents, blindness, dyslexia, or autism, a multitude of identities and lived experiences are explored with real insight, letting viewers see their lives reflected onscreen.

One of the more polarizing examples of inclusivity is season 22’s premiere, “Mr. Ratburn And The Special Someone,” in which the intimidating-to-all third-grade teacher Mr. Ratburn marries a man named Patrick. Alabama Public Television prohibited the episode from airing; the Arthur spin-off Postcards From Buster experienced a similar ban.

Perhaps the best measure of Arthur’s legacy and influence can be seen on the Internet. The memes from the show alone demonstrate that Arthur and his community have cemented themselves in pop culture. There’s “Arthur’s First,” yes, but also “D.W. Holding Fence,” which saw a spike in use at the top of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Arthur’s reach even extends to celebrities. The jokes about John Legend looking like Arthur led to a Google Duo commercial. In 2017, Chance the Rapper and Jon Batiste collaborated with Marley on a remix of the shows iconic theme song. And in 2020, comedian Lilly Singh gave us a COVID-themed rendition.

The beloved aardvark has also become a go-to for Halloween costumes, a muse for social media videos, and the star of numerous fan accounts across social media platforms. In addition to Finding D.W., multiple podcasts have launched, too, including the long-running Elwood City Limits.

Although Arthur as a series might be a thing of the recent past, fans can expect more from the show’s world: “Producer GBH and PBS Kids are continuing to work together on additional Arthur content, sharing the lessons of Arthur and his friends in new ways,” executive producer Carol Greenwald told Variety in a statement after the announcement of the show’s cancellation.

In a time when the show’s principles seem to be on trial in America, the way that Arthur blazed a trail with thoughtfulness and mindfulness seems more necessary now than ever before. What started as a new form of educational and entertaining children’s programming transformed into timeless lessons and a legitimate legacy. February 21 may have marked the conclusion of original material from Arthur, but its lasting impact that viewers carry with them beyond the screen will always make it a wonderful kind of day.