Epitosodes: Hey Arnold!

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By Allen

The Episode

Season: 3

Episode: 14

Title: “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”

The Review

It’s sometimes easier to see our lives fitting into a template than allowing the randomness of life to take control. We seek that uniformity because it lets us feel connected in a time where connection is severely lacking. This is especially true for young adults, who crave the validation provided by assigning their identity to one particular stereotype or niche. This manifests itself usually through tastes and brand loyalty, but more commonly in the United States, society’s need to fit into a category comes out during the holiday season.

As the son of two Syrian immigrants, I always felt a little bit left out of the traditional American childhood. I didn’t visit or have friends over my house in any meaningful way until high school, I didn’t have many outdoor adventures with the neighborhood kids, and I didn’t have anything resembling the Wonder Years-esque experience of young love whatsoever. I don’t regret these things not being part of my life, because I made up for them with meaningful, character-buildling experiences of my own. Sometimes, it’s nice to imagine what could have been.

I did watch a lot of cartoons though. When my family and I were still living in a lower middle class duplex, my sister and I watched a whole lot of Hey Arnold! It fit into Nickelodeon’s block of cartoons that bridged the gap between serious adult drama and slapstick kid’s show. Nickelodeon was doing what Pixar is today, essentially. For those that don’t know, Hey Arnold! was a show about a young nine year old boy living with his grandparents and various tenants in a boarding house located in some nebulous amalgamation of New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. The general formula for an episode of Hey Arnold! was: Arnold sees something wrong with the world, tries to fix it, fails, learns something, and accepts that he can’t fix everything. The show was about disappointment, and realizing how little power we have to change the world. It’s a message that resonated deeply with me as a young kid, filled with optimism and hope that all of the world’s problems could be fixed with friendliness and a helping hand. That’s not to say the show was nihilistic or cynical; rather, Arnold’s accepting that he couldn’t change things led to him being a better person, and adjusting his world view to fix the world in small ways.

“Arnold’s Thanksgiving” is the episode that I frequently reference as an essential part of understanding why the show resonated with so many people. The episode starts with Arnold biking down a facsimile of the Brooklyn Bridge, when he stops to watch the christening of The Mayflower II as a city landmark. As the credits fade in, he looks on wistfully, as he so often does at history and culture. Craig Bartlett, the show’s creator and lead writer, has said that his original pitch for Hey Arnold! was that Arnold would start every episode dreaming of some fantastic scenario, then be woken up in class by his bully and secret admirer, Helga Pataki, shouting the show’s title. It’s clear that they kept the skeleton of this idea in “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”, where you can tell Arnold is dreaming of big ideas before heading back to reality.

The next scene takes place at Arnold’s school, PS 118. The students put on a play telling the story of the first Thanksgiving, and everything immediately falls apart. The hastily-made set collapses, the audience laughs, but the kids keep going. As every scene is ruined in some way, the students never stop the show. Arnold and his friend Gerald are backstage, and as Gerald espouses his love for the holiday, Arnold reveals why he looked on at the Mayflower II so hopefully; he doesn’t get to have a “real” Thanksgiving in the boarding home. His grandmother “gets mixed up”, and confuses Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, meaning they have to go along with it and cook hot dogs on the roof in November year after year. Arnold’s grandmother’s identity confusion is clearly a sign of advanced dementia, and although the show plays it for comedy most of the time, they treat it with just the right amount of weight for it to feel real. The tenants accept her disability, and work around it.

Helga, the other half of this show, goes on a rant backstage about how her Thanksgiving’s aren’t very typical either; between her overbearingly perfect older sister Olga coming home, her alcoholic mother (don’t worry, the show plays this off as her mom just being a goofball who ‘likes smoothies’), and her father who can’t be bothered to do anything but eat and watch football. The irony of both of these scenes is that Arnold and Helga are playing lead characters in the final scene of the play; a re-enactment of a modern day Thanksgiving amongst a happy family. Both of them get to play the part, but once the curtain goes down, they feel left out again.

The next few scenes really highlight how much the creators cared equally about Helga and Arnold, with each scene bouncing between the two of them as their nontraditional Thanksgivings are shown. They both try to nudge their families into more traditional Thanksgiving celebration, but nobody listens to the nine year olds. These scenes hit home with me the most. I made efforts as a kid to fit into more stereotypes; wearing “cooler” clothes, having a messier room, asking to eat more “American food”. I just assumed that was all right, and fitting in would make me feel like less of an outsider.

Arnold and Helga eventually give up trying to fix their own Thanksgivings, and they both leave their homes for the afternoon. I always found the freedom of Hey Arnold!‘s young cast to come and go as they please fascinating, but it makes so much sense when you consider how truly little their guardians cared about their well-being, be it because of old age or neglect. They both cross paths outside of a store displaying models of a traditional American Thanksgiving, looking inside but always separated by glass. In a beautifully directed scene, they go for a friendly walk on the pier and pass by the Mayflower II, still cruising around the bay. As they look on, it crashes into a bridge and collapses. This is actually the funniest scene in the episode despite sounding so tragic, because it really highlights how willing the creators were to go for a visual gag if it also had a solid symbolic undercurrent. The image of the Mayflower crashing in front of two depressed and jaded young children says everything about this episode.

The kids decide to go join what they think is a “real Thanksgiving” at the home of their teacher and writer of the school play, Mr. Simmons. When they (yet again) look through glass to see Simmons’s house and witness a family dinner almost perfectly resembling the characters in his play, they long to go inside. This time, they pass through the barrier and ask Mr. Simmons if they can join him for dinner. He politely obliges, and the dramatic turn of the episode becomes clear. Mr. Simmons’s Thanksgiving is anything from idyllic; his mother is overbearingly judgemental, his two friends are miserable thirty-somethings that take joy in ridiculing others, and his uncle is an oafishly loud eater (who is also inexplicably Canadian). The whole scene ends in a shouting contest, which Arnold and Helga take as their cue to leave. They realize as they converse in Mr. Simmons’s kitchen that he wrote the play as an idealized version of his own family, and that maybe there isn’t such a thing as a perfect Thanksgiving. Simmons comforts them, saying: “This may not make much sense to you now, but I’m truly thankful for them”. Family gatherings are messy and loud, people don’t get along well, but happiness comes from accepting each other’s flaws and being together. The kids realize this, and head home to their families.

The world does pay you back for being a good person, according to Hey Arnold! Helga comes home to a family that misses her, and they put her handmade centerpiece on the table as they eat together. Arnold comes home to an abandoned rooftop grill, but it turns out the tenants and his grandparents decided to meet him halfway and throw him a surprise party that mixes both Fourth of July and Thanksgiving celebrations.

This episode holds a special place in my heart not just because it echoes many of the same things I worried about as a young child, but it’s also hopeful and honest in a way most cartoons are not. The credits roll as we cut back to the Mayflower II. All of its passengers are safe, and the hull of the ship rises back to the surface. Everything is okay, just a few buffs and scratches. And that’s how family can be; rough and constantly on the verge of sinking, but always capable of rising back to a healthy medium.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Pentatonic Ponderings: More of That, Please

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By Allen

Prelude

I watch Almost Famous every year that I get the chance. I’ve been doing this since I was 15 or so, when it was first recommended to me by one of the editors of the now-defunct film website, Screened. If you’ve followed this site for a while, you know I really, REALLY like that movie. On my latest rewatch, I picked up on a whole new theme in the film that’s buried under all the nostalgia and rock music; longing. Specifically, the longing for a particular type of music, and how it feels to let a small clip of sound influence and change your life. Anna Paquin’s character sums this up in the screencap I’m using as the thumbnail; it does hurt, and it can be simultaneously isolating and inviting to feel like you’re the only person that feeds off of a particular piece of music. 2015 has been an incredible year of music, and I’ve easily listened to more full albums this year than ever before. Some of my favorite songs this year have that perfect, enchanting couple of seconds of sound that make me feel like everything is okay, and I’d like to share them with the world, and maybe we can all come to appreciate each other’s “silly little piece of music”.

Track 1: “Celebrate” by Metric (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLg9WUhhhAs&channel=lastofspades)

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We’re talking about the synth hit here. If you want my favorite instance of it in the track, it’s at 2:26. Metric’s been my favorite band since I first heard Synthetica in high school, so I started out as a fan of their synth-pop rebranding before going back and exploring their more rock-influenced roots. Shifting genres so drastically is a bold and polarizing decision, but it worked for Metric because they kept the core of what makes them special; an incredible concert sound and personal lyrics that have inspired millions. “Celebrate” is all about grasping at the opportunities in life while they’re still available to you. When Haines hits that synth note, it’s time to dance right then and there. The song almost grinds to a halt every time the synth kicks in, like the rest of the chorus is moving out of the way. It’s a powerful statement: “Here we are, this is what our sound is now.” Nobody wants to sit and wait.

Track 2: “Clearest Blue” by Chvrches (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpFXXPruuqU)

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I have gone on record to the official Chvrches Twitter account saying that I will cry if I ever get to hear “Clearest Blue” live in concert. It’s the type of song that attracts that sort of response, with an emotional buildup that is so intense that it, like Paquin’s character says in Almost Famous, almost hurts. It’s a long, intense two minutes and twelve seconds into “Clearest Blue” before the song stands out from so many other Chvrches songs. Their latest album, Every Open Eye, has been criticized for sticking fairly close to their previous work in terms of song structure, but “Clearest Blue” proves this wrong. Even a minute in, a careful listener can notice the addition of different instrumentation and faster pace. “Holding on tightly to the side/Never quite learning why” is exactly how I felt the first time I heard this song. You feel it coming, you feel your pulse racing. And right as the drop is about to start, we become Mayberry in the song, trying to push this track away as yet another dull, chorus-focused pop song. But then it happens. 2:16 into “Clearest Blue” is the singular where I knew that this was an incredible year for music. I was genuinely shaking the first time I heard it, and it’s quite the fun little game for me to show it to other people and watch their reactions. This is the kind of music that really stings when it’s over.

Track 3: “Seeing Stars” by B├śRNS (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2GOGwB4QYU&channel=UCi13pi8_WsPJMpYBqSKwK_Q)

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Known by many as “the guy who wrote the song in that Hulu ad” and “Taylor Swift’s friend”, Garrett Borns established himself this year as an incredible voice in pop music. Although “Electric Love” is probably his most well-known song, “Seeing Stars” delivers much more in terms of the satisfaction we’re looking for in this list. Right from the start, the synth is overpowering and, most importantly, fast. Just when you think that’s just going to be the intro, it becomes the chorus. So simple, just a few notes, and it carries the entire song. I’ve found Borns to be fantastic music for cardio exercise, because rhythm like that keeps you from letting up for even a second.

Track 4: “Sunday Candy” by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4ooH8frBWg&channel=ChanceThaRapper)

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Chance the Rapper refuses to let up after having released Acid Rap, a 2013 mixtape that was so good, so incredibly memorable, that it put him on the map of modern hip-hop. “Sunday Candy” is a song off of Surf, an album he did with his rap/soul music collective The Social Experiment over the summer, and it represents a big step forward in hip-hop. The part we’re going to specifically close read here is the first verse and chorus. Chance raps about his grandmother, and how her cooking, spirituality, and tenacity make her his biggest inspiration. Jamila Woods absolutely makes this track though, and her chanting of “Rain down Zion/It’s gonna rain” layered over a velvety baritone AND Chance’s rapping? It’s awe-inspiring, it brightens up a bad day, it…I’m dancing to it right now, and it’s not even playing. Good music can do that to you, if you meet it halfway.

Track 5: “Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeccAtqd5K8&channel=CarlyRaeJepsenVEVO)

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SYNTH HORNS, Y’ALL. Who would’ve thought Carly Rae Jepsen could make such a knockout comback after seemingly peaking with her 2012 summer hit “Call Me Maybe”? Emotion is all-around an amazing album, filled with breezy pop tracks that I’m not ashamed to say I’ll be bumping in the car for months to come. The running thread of the album for me was “Let’s do some pop music you already know and love, and throw something special in there”. That’s the synth horns in “Run Away With Me”. I’ve never heard anything like them, and coupled with the thumping bass running through the whole song and the hollow, almost gunshot-like drum hit before the chorus, you’ve got the formula for an incredibly memorable pop chorus that shows Jepsen’s range and reminds me why I fell in love with pop music.

Epilogue

Honest to goodness, I didn’t plan for all of these tracks to be so synth-heavy, but that’s really just what I’m into these days. The criteria for what sounds and songs fit into this article’s theme is intentionally broad, and different for each person. Listen back specifically to songs that have gotten stuck in your head recently, and try to isolate which part, be it some random instrumentation or a lovely falsetto, you’ll know what you’re listening for. Take that, play it over and over again, and make a playlist out of all the songs that do it for you. Here are some of the songs I added to a playlist for this article that didn’t make the cut, but have the same satisfying feel to them:

“Should Have Known Better” by Sufjan Stevens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJJT00wqlOo&channel=AsthmaticKitty

“Baby Blue” by Action Bronson and Chance the Rapper: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVP_w1rQweE

“Duct Tape Heart” by Barenaked Ladies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zr23m4q6XoY

“New Americana” by Halsey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b-eYbUVZedY&channel=HalseyVEVO