I was lucky to be a kid in the 1990s. Talk to most people my age and they’ll agree. The 1990s was a golden age for cartoons. That may seem somewhat egocentric, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing counter-argument. This was the era that brought us the animated classes for “X-Men,” “Batman,” “Daria,” “Animaniacs,” and so much more.
As a kid during that era, there were many great shows that I still hold dear to my heart. I’ve mentioned a few of them in the past. A few of these shows hold up, even by today’s standards. I contend that the “Batman” animated series only gets better with age. One show, however, has taken on a very different meaning over the years the air and, being an aspiring romance writer, it still resonates with me.
That show is “Hey Arnold!” and for most cartoon-loving kids in the 1990s, this was one of the best shows that didn’t involve talking babies. It was a unique show that followed a diverse cast of characters, each with their own unique connection to the titular Arnold. By almost any measure, Arnold was a lovable, relateable idealist who you just can’t help but root for.
He’s loyal, altruistic, friendly, compassionate, and empathetic. Even as a 4th grader, he’s the kind of kid you want to be friends with. He’ll go to bat for you. He’ll stand by you when the chips are down. When the whole world around him is wrong, he’ll stand for what’s right. Whether it’s the 90s or today, there’s a lot to like about a character like that.
However, the best part of “Hey Arnold!” isn’t how inherently likable Arnold is. In fact, one of the most endearing sub-plots of the show is built around a character who, on paper, couldn’t be more different. That character is Helga Pataki, the short-tempered, overly hostile, overly dramatic girl who often threatens others with her fists.
She’s also secretly in love with Arnold. It’s not just a childish crush, either. She’s really in love with Arnold.
When I watched this show as a kid, I thought that crush was kind of odd. It’s not that I didn’t care for romantic sub-plots. Even as a kid, I enjoyed romance, even in cartoons. It was one of the reasons I loved the 90s Marvel cartoons so much. I just didn’t understand the romance in “Hey Arnold!” Then, when I watched it with a more refined perspective, it gained a whole new context.
In essence, the love story of Helga and Arnold is built around tragedy, but somehow manages to feel sincere and genuine. It’s a love story that initially comes off as obsessive and unhealthy. However, as we learn more about each character, they gain more complexity. With each subsequent refinement, it becomes clear just how much these two complement each other.
It’s worth reiterating that this is a kids show from the 1990s. Things like tragedy, romance, and chemistry are things that usually don’t fit into a show within the pre-Spongebob Nickelodeon era. Even within those limitations, the complicated love story between Helga and Arnold is surprisingly mature.
To appreciate the depth of that story, it’s necessary to understand some of Helga’s story. Even by the skewed standards of a kids cartoon, it’s pretty sad. Helga does not come from a nurturing, supportive environment. Her parents are a wreck. Her father is a self-centered blowhard who cares more about his business than his family. Her mother is a dazed alcoholic who always seems hung over.
Then, there’s her older sister, Olga. She’s basically the perfect daughter who sucks up all the attention in her family. She’s sweet, successful, kind, and an overachiever. She sets the bar so high that Helga has no chance of ever matching it, so she doesn’t even try. As such, her parents barely notice her. Her father often forgets her name. Most of the time, she just calls her “the girl.”
This is not a happy home life for anyone, let a lone a 4th grade kid. Nobody pays attention to her. Nobody shows her any semblance of affection or love. Nobody is even nice to her. Then, she meets Arnold. He’s the first person to show her real, sincere kindness. It’s not out of pity, either. That’s just the kind of person Arnold is. Naturally, it makes an impression.
It’s a tragic foundation for any love story, but it’s one that isn’t fully fleshed out until later seasons. If there’s one episode that defines Helga’s character, it’s Season 4, Episode 78, entitled “Helga on the Couch.” This is the episode that lays bare just how tragic her life was and still is. It also puts all the obsessive feelings she has for Arnold into a larger context.
It’s almost disturbing how sad things were for her. As early as pre-school, we see just how neglected she was. We also see just how big an influence Arnold was for her at that moment.
Again, it’s worth reiterating that this is a kids show. If there were a story about a pre-school kid who was that neglected by her family, it would make headlines and stir plenty of outrage on social media. However, “Hey Arnold!” managed to make this distressing story feel genuine and heartfelt.
The romance isn’t entirely one-sided, either. In the early seasons of the show, Arnold mostly saw Helga as his bully. He rarely saw her as anything more than that. However, as the show went on, he starts noticing her complexities. He even manages to get through her tough, hostile exterior on a few occasions.
While there are more than a few occasions when she comes close to confessing her feelings for him, it’s not until the series finale/movie that they actually become an item, at least as much as a couple of 4th graders can be. The way they go about is part of what makes the romance feel genuine.
It doesn’t just revolve around Helga finally coming clean. Without getting too heavy into spoilers, Arnold gets to see first-hand just how far Helga is willing to go for him. She shows him with her actions how much she cares. It’s not something she could ever put into words and not just because she’s a kid. Remember, she comes from a home where she never got a shred of affection from anyone.
This moment, which was a culmination of many hints and sub-plots that developed over many seasons, is incredibly cathartic. Even my inner 90s kid could appreciate it. It effectively completed a journey that started with the first episode. Helga starts off as this obsessive, stalker-like bully. Then, over time, we understand why she feels the way she does and why Arnold reacts to it so strongly.
It’s still tragic on many levels. As a foundation for romance, Helga and Arnold don’t start off on the right foot. This is a relationship that could’ve easily become a one-sided affair that quickly devolved into stalking. Somehow, “Hey Arnold!” managed to make it work. It even managed to make it feel sweet.
The fact that such a complicated, yet genuine romance could manifest in a kids show is further evidence that the 1990s truly was a golden age for cartoons. For that reason, and many others, “Hey Arnold!” and the unique love story it told will have a special place in my heart.