Hey Arnold! started on October 7, 1996. It had the typical nicktoon run of five seasons (I say “typical” because while most Nicktoons ran from 3 – 5 seasons, they are the notable exceptions to the rule: Spongebob, Fairly Oddparents, Rugrats).
Every season of Hey Arnold! was distinct in its own look and feel. The first season, in particular, the show looked very crude but also rather stylish; I mention previously that in many episodes the backdrops were done in coloured pencils as opposed to paint to give that gritty, urban vibe. Even the character is different in relation the subsequent seasons. This isn’t even talking about character development (he remains 9 throughout the entire season, so there isn’t much of that); in season one Arnold is portrayed as the strong, silent type. The daydreamer. In this season moreso than the others he seems very action-oriented, very creative; he has an idea and plan and acts on it. Not in an impulsive way, mind you, for the first-season Arnold, while relatively quiet, is very thoughtful and introspective, sometimes even almost moody. First-season Arnold is the only Arnold to be voiced by Lane Toran (who at the time of series’ original run was known as Toran Caudell).
I’ve mentioned in a previous show that season 1 remains my favorite season; it’s a very strong introduction into the series and lays out a very strong foundation of the characters and the city in which Arnold lives. And today I’m going to go through what I believe are the best episodes which embody all the good traits of this inaugural season.
A few notes: 38 episodes were originally made for the first season; of this number, only 26 were actually run as part of that season. The remaining 12 were re-distributed as part of the second and third seasons. Those episodes are:
Helga’s Boyfriend / Crush on Teacher
Hall Monitor / Harold’s Bar Mitzvah
Coach Wittenberg / Four-Eyed Jack
Tour de Pond / Teachers’ Strike
Runaway Float / Partners
Part Time Friends / Biosquare
For the purpose of today’s show, I’m omitting these 12 episodes from the list because, a) it’s just easier and b) while these episodes are first season, aesthically they don’t match the tone and look of the other episodes in season 1. This may be in part due to the fact that the first season was animated by 3 different animation houses. This is why some of the later season 1 episodes look dramatically different from the earlier ones. I will also be omitting the season 1 holiday episodes from this list (Arnold’s Christmas, Arnold’s Valentine).
Plot: When Arnold and Gerald are bored, Grandpa tells them the tale of the mad conductor of engine 25. This is one of the urban legends episodes where Gerald is NOT the keeper of the tale; it’s also a bit cute how Nickelodeon coyly dodges any reference to Hell or Satan (instead using phrases like “The Fiery Underworld” of “The Red Hot Demon”). This also the rare episode outside of the movie where Arnold, Helga and Gerald work together as a team. And this episode earns a spot on this list just for Gerald’s off-the-cuff song while waiting at the abandoned train station.
Arnold’s Hat and Operation Ruthless
These are two episodes I decided to lump together on this list because of their similarities. In Arnold’s Hat, Arnold loses the hat and it winds up in the possession of Helga, who uses it as the piece du resistance of her Arnold shrine. In Operation Ruthless, Arnold is trying to gain the attention of his crush, sixth-grader Ruth P. McDougall, while attending the annual Cheese Fair. Meanwhile, Helga is determined to sabotage Arnold at every opportunity.
Both of these episodes are similar in that they highlight both Arnold and Helga’s duality as the frontrunners of the show. Although Arnold is the titular character, there are almost just as many episodes in the series that focus around Helga and her family life. And when an episode decides to focus on both Arnold and Helga, they always share equal screentime (other examples: Runaway Float, Arnold’s Christmas, The Big Scoop, Dinner for Four).
What really makes the two episodes stand out is their allusion to the darker themes of the show. In Arnold’s Hat, we witness a flashback of Arnold as a baby receiving his hat for the first time by his mother and father. This is the first time Arnold’s parents are referenced in the series and forces the viewer to ask the question that won’t be answered until much later on: what HAPPENED to Arnold’s parents?
Operation Ruthless is one of the first episodes in the series to not conclude with a happy ending. Despite Helga succeeding in her endeavours to keep Arnold and Ruth apart, Arnold is undeterred, and confesses that the chase is what makes Arnold like her even more. Even Phoebe and Gerald, who surreptitiously flirt throughout this episode (and through much of the series) leave the cheese fair together; Helga is left standing alone as the lights of the fair shutter out above her. I love this ending because, while it is sad, it lets fans of the show know early on that not every episode is going to be all sunshine and roses; the characters will not always leave with smiles on their faces. This is also a subtle nod by the creators to prep the audience for even more devastating disappointment and heartache (like when the eventual fate of Arnold’s parents is revealed).
In The Baseball, Arnold is determined to attend the last baseball game of his idol, Mickey Kaline. With the money he saved up (and with a little help from his Grandpa), Arnold and Gerald go to the final game, only to get stuck with some really lousy seats. Arnold braves the ushers who threaten to toss him out for sneaking into the lower levels of the baseball diamond, and as luck would have it, he catches the homerun ball that Mickey Kaline hits. After the game, Arnold feels conflicted and feels like he should give something back to his hero as a token of thanks.
I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t an obvious choice for one of the best of season 1, but this episode has a lot going for it. Most notably, the detailed backgrounds and layouts; since this is season 1 they still retain that iconic “coloured pencil” look that I find simply gorgeous. Also, there’s some other elements that are solely season 1 territory (ie. the kids playing baseball in the street; this practice had stopped after the first season because of the birth of Gerald’s Field from The Vacant Lot).
Fun fact: Ron Perlman voiced Mickey Kaline, and Dan Povenmire (of Phineas and Ferb fame) directed this episode.
This is yet another urban legend episode, and arguably one of the best in the season, if not series. When Arnold’s carrier pigeon Chester falls ill, he relies on the help of Pigeon Man, an eccentric, soft-spoken who prefers the company of humans to birds. Arnold develops a friendship with the character, but the other kids in the neighborhood refuse to look past their preconceived biases and prejudices, and in their ignorance they destroy his home. At the end of the episode, Pigeon Man leaves the city, but not before thanking Arnold for reminding him that there are still good people in the world.
This is one of the more calm and somber episodes of season 1, but it’s undoubtedly the most beautiful, especially at the ending where Pigeon Man departs from the city in the most spectacular way.
(I reject the theory that the ending is an allegory for Pigeon Man’s suicide – you can find out more about it here and here – if you accept that logic, you probably ascribe to the “Hey Arnold! theory” as well, which I DON’T, so you can kindly Google and learn about that creepypasta on your own time.)
Hey Arnold! Fan Shoutout
As part of a new segment on this show, I’d like recognize some of the contributions made by fans of the series. First one is a “Hiding Arnold” a collaborative fan comic created by Ingrid Ochoa and Jenna Rose (Azure129). Arnold accidentally desecrates a sacred artifact by the Green Eyes and now they are out for his blood, and Helga has to hide him in her room until the fervor dies down. The characters are portrayed a bit older than they are in the series, but the artwork and the writing is on-point, which makes for a very entertaining experience.
The comic is not yet finished, but it seems to update every week, and they post the new parts on the Hey Arnold! Facebook Fan Page (or you can also follow directly from the Deviantart page link below).
“Hiding Arnold” – a fan comic by Ingrid Ochoa and Jenna Rose(Azure129)