Hey Arnold was one of—if not the—coolest animated kids’ show on TV during the mid-’90s. With a diverse cast of street smart kids and quirky adults in a thriving city that was just as much a character as its citizens, it was like the smooth jazz of animated children’s shows. It was a calmer show; no bright, flashy colors, frenetic soundtracks, or hyperactive main characters. It isn’t necessarily realistic, but it does feel more grounded in reality and down to earth than a lot of other children’s shows.
The show overall really started to grow when it left behind Arnold’s Cloud Cuckoo Lander personality and concentrated on seriously fleshing out the various characters in the city of Hillwood. Even adult characters like Grandpa, Oskar Kokoshka, and Mr. Hyunh got their time in the limelight and, especially in the case of the Mr. Hyunh-centered Christmas special, it led to some of the most poignant moments in the entire series (or really in animated kids’ television period). One of the characters who often had entire episodes and story arcs devoted to her was the resident bully and passionate secret admirer of Arnold, Helga Pataki.
Most people with even a cursory familiarity with the show can see that the behavior of Helga’s parents are G-rated codes for abuse and alcoholism. I had a vague awareness of this when I was younger; it was easy for me (with two alcoholic parents) to recognize that her mother Miriam’s slurred speech, proclivity for sleeping in random places, and Tabasco “smoothies” indicated more than just her being a wacky eccentric. And since I had a deep and abiding passion for consuming books about domestic violence from the time I was 10, I recognized the abuse in her dad, successful beeper salesman Big Bob, and his habit of yelling; he and Miriam’s constant favoritism towards perfect, repressed older sister Olga; and their neglect of Helga.
But watching as an adult, I’m able to really see just how profound some of these moments in the show were. It’s really important that this children’s show handled the subject of abusive parents—not horribly, call-child-protective-services abusive because that would be too much for a kids’ network—so well, especially because it was placed right along side more normal, non-abusive families like Arnold’s and Gerald’s.
Helga is one of the most interesting characters on the show: bright, insecure, passionately artistic, clever, cunning, equal-parts self-serving and selfless, fearful, apathetic at times, and violent, her character arc is one of the most impressive and nuanced developments in any animated children’s show. As we get to know Helga more, and become more familiar with not just her specific tics and personality traits but also her family life, we see that she is more than just a schoolyard bully with a crush. We see, bit by bit, how Helga struggles with simultaneously craving the love and acceptance of her peers and family while putting up the defensive walls that push everyone away.
In an effort to really understand and share the ins and outs of Helga’s progression to a fully fleshed out and richly idiosyncratic character, I’ve decided to start up a series, à la TTAACMATHPS, focusing on Pataki-centric episodes of Hey Arnold! So stay tuned for the first entry this Wednesday where I’ll start things off with “Olga Comes Home”!