Tag Archives: family

The Pataki Files: The Beeper Queen

(I started this series over a year ago! It’s been a sluggish trek but I have not abandoned this series! For any newcomers, read the intro here!)

“The Beeper Queen” opens with Miriam reaching into a wine-stocked cabinet for her Tabasco sauce, the key ingredient of her obviously alcoholic smoothies. Helga sits at the kitchen table making herself a lunch for school the next day, frustration at her mother simmering just below an impassive surface. These first 30 seconds sets the stage for what is, in my opinion, the most tragic Pataki-centric episodes of Hey Arnold!

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Helga mothers herself while Miriam’s priorities are elsewhere

After Miriam breaks a shelf, Bob steps up to do a “man’s job” and pulls out his back, laying him up for the next few weeks. Miriam volunteers to substitute for him at meetings and in the office, an offer that her husband and daughter originally meet with derision. It’s easy to feel bad for Miriam because her family thinks she’s incompetent, but in reality she’s never given them a reason to believe otherwise. Against his better judgment, Bob allows Miriam to go to an important meeting, and it turns out that she’s a powerhouse  of executive decision-making and wooing clients.

Suddenly Miriam is super-mom: working diligently, making Helga nutritious lunches, taking her to school, and spending the evenings with her while she does her homework. And therein lies the tragedy of “The Beeper Queen.” During this brief hope spot, we see the mother that Helga needs—and desperately wants—but just as quickly, through the power of montage, it all falls apart. Miriam’s newfound energy goes from being evenly distributed between daughter and job to one-track and work-centered. She essentially becomes a gender-reversed Big Bob Pataki: absorbed in work with little interest in her kid.  Once again, Helga is left with an emotionally unavailable parent who doesn’t see her sadness or her yearning for love and attention.

The rapid rise and fall of Miriam's maternal skills

The rapid rise and fall of Miriam’s maternal skills

As Miriam discovers that she thrives in a high-energy, high-responsibility executive position, we’re shown that she’s no better a mother than she was before. Eventually, Miriam sees the error of her ways and quits her job. This seems like a sweet, motherly gesture until you realize that it means that things will return to how they were at the beginning of the episode. It’s doubly troubling because, although throwing herself into work saves Miriam from depression and alcoholism, it’s more damaging for Helga—at least her depressed, alcoholic mother was there.

The episode seems to end on a happy note, but due to the power of status quo we know that Miriam’s behavior won’t change for good. She’s incapable of being a good mother regardless of her personal circumstances—unreliable alcoholic or responsible businesswoman—and ultimately Helga is the one who suffers.

Previous editions of The Pataki Files:

Olga Comes Home

Helga and the Nanny

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The Pataki Files: Olga Comes Home

As promised, the first entry in my new series about dysfunction in the Pataki family from Hey Arnold!

While “The Little Pink Book” was the first Helga-centric episode (and showed us how deep her love/obsession with Arnold runs), “Olga Comes Home” is one of the first episodes that really sheds light on Helga’s home life. When her older, perfect sister Olga comes home from prestigious Wellington College for spring break, Helga’s jealousy and resentment get the better of her. So to exact “sweet, black revenge,” she changes one of Olga’s grades to a B+, effectively destroying her sister’s flawless academic performance and sending her into a downward spiral of depression, tears and Mozart’s Lacrimosa. For a while Helga reaps the benefits of her sister’s depression, but eventually her guilt gets the better of her (aided by a Salvador Dalí-inspired dream). She reveals the truth which leads to her and Olga having a rare, bittersweet sister-to-sister moment.

This episode marks an important moment for the Patakis: there had been many references to Olga, the mythical older sister whose shadow is constantly cast over Helga—her father constantly calls her “Olga” (hell, “Helga” is just another version of that name) and both parents are always rhapsodizing about how wonderful Olga is. This episode is devoted to unveiling (and deconstructing) the legend of Olga Pataki and revealing how she and the image she has had projected onto her is the nexus of the entire family’s behavior. Olga’s presence is the only thing that takes Miriam out of her slurred, drunken stupor and makes Bob express interest in his family.

When we first see Olga, as opposed to just hearing about her secondhand, all of Helga’s negative feelings seem validated: she is a peppy Stepford Smiler who is completely committed to the role of flawless overachiever and totally oblivious to Helga’s suffering. Helga’s method of revenge may seem over the top and unnecessary until we really stop to think about how Helga has endured this her entire life. For her, Olga is the root of all her family problems. If it weren’t for Olga being so perfect and sucking up all of Bob and Miriam’s attention/energy, Helga wouldn’t have unrealistic expectations to live up to and then her parents could just appreciate her for who she is; instead she is either ignored or encouraged to be more like Olga. And Helga’s revenge is ultimately futile—even though at first things seem better, her parents are still too absorbed in worrying about Olga to pay Helga any attention.

And it’s when Helga tells Olga the truth that we’re really given a glimpse into the abusive nature of the household: Olga admits that she thinks Helga is lucky because their parents pay no attention to her, that she feels like a wind-up doll who has to perform constantly. The facade is broken and we see Olga for who she is—someone who suffers just as much as Helga does because of the expectations of her parents. But where Helga throws up defensive walls and blatantly refuses to meet their standards, Olga bends over backwards to try and meet them, to the point where something as silly as getting a B+ instead of an A sends her into a deep depression.

In this moment of sisterly bonding, it becomes apparent that both Helga and Olga have suffered from their parents’ impossible, abusive expectations. It is not that Helga is inherently vindictive and jealous or that Olga is naturally an overly cheerful perfectionist. They have both been given a set of expectations to meet by parents who don’t know any other way to raise their children. Olga chose to meet them and found out early that it was a (or possibly the only) way to get positive attention from her emotionally incapable parents. Helga, born 10-11 years later, didn’t have a chance. As a result, both sisters crave what the other has: Olga wants them to just forget she exists and Helga, just once, would like for her parents to give her unconditional love and affection without the expectations.

Please leave any comments below and come back next week for more Pataki analysis!

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10 Heartbreaking Simpsons Moments

[This list is being crossposted on the terrific Simpsons-centric blog Dead Homer Society. Go check them out!]


“Don’t cry for me; I’m already dead.” – Barney

Back in June, I composed a list of “10 Scary Simpsons Moments.” This is a companion piece of sorts, demonstrating the show’s emotional breadth with ten of the sweetest, tenderest, and most touching moments of the show’s run. Although renowned for its cynicism and satire, The Simpsons always had powerful, James L. Brooks-influenced emotion at its core. It was never just about hollow laughs; instead, each episode was invested in relationships, families, and the oft-painful quirks of human behavior.

But it also never took the typical sitcom shortcut of cheap schmaltz: its emotional arcs were steeped in character development and real-life resonances. The Simpsons, at its best, was about well-rounded human beings with foibles, feelings, and heartbreaks. Here are ten tear-jerking, heartstring-tugging examples…

10) “Dog of Death”

This episode has a twofer: its first act confronts the agonizing facts of pet mortality (and middle-class penny-pinching), while the rest is devoted to Bart searching for the lost, brainwashed Santa’s Little Helper. It climaxes with a montage celebrating pet/child rapports and the merciful restoration of the status quo, reaffirming the lesson of Old Yeller and all those Lassie movies: few emotional forces are more potent than the relationship between a boy and his dog.

9) “Lisa on Ice”

Bart and Lisa’s sibling rivalry was a staple of the show’s B-plots, but no other episode exploited their love/hate relationship as skillfully as “Lisa on Ice.” Most of the episode teeters toward the “hate” end of that dynamic, but as with “Dog of Death,” all that conflict leads to a hug-it-out climax and an adorable montage of Bart and Lisa’s shared childhood. This being The Simpsons, though, their heartfelt reconciliation plays out with a hockey riot raging in the background.

8) “I Married Marge”

The flashback episodes are gold mines of masterfully orchestrated sentiment. “And Maggie Makes Three,” with its “DO IT FOR HER” ending, nearly made this list, as did “The Way We Was” for Homer’s closing monologue. But “I Married Marge” has Homer and Marge’s tragic separation as newlyweds when Homer goes off to become a man, and their reunion in the Gulp ‘n’ Blow drive-thru with the words “Pour vous.” It’s a note-perfect, bittersweet back story for Our Favorite Family.

7) ” ‘Round Springfield”

Poor Lisa, condemned to lose every positive male role model (see #2). The loss of Bleeding Gums Murphy really hurts; he’s such a gently paternal presence, and he’s Lisa’s only mentor as a jazz saxophonist. (Mr. Largo, his passion dulled by years in the public school system, could never come close.) Unlike a certain gimmicky, ratings-grabbing death from Season 11, Murphy’s passing is handled with tact and humor, making it all the more painful.

6) “Bart Sells His Soul”

This episode topped my “scary” list, and the same spiritual fears that feed its horror also make it an emotionally heavy experience. Bart’s prayer at the end is a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright; she cuts right through his “underachiever and proud of it” schtick, revealing the lost little boy underneath. “Bart Sells His Soul” delves into the anxiety and loneliness that constitute dark side of childhood, and the redemption that lies just beyond.

5) “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”

After a diabolically brilliant first act that degenerates into a nightmare, “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” tests the Simpson family’s mettle like no episode before or since. But the intensity of their trial by social services fire makes the resolution that much more gratifying (and emotionally overwhelming), and Marge’s climactic line can still bring tears to my eyes: “Oh, Maggie, you’re a Simpson again!”

4) “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”

When Homer ingests some potentially deadly sushi, he gets put through the existential wringer: as Dr. Hibbert informs him, he only has 22 hours to wrap up his life on earth. His attempts to do so are tragicomic, as he earnestly carries out some tasks while botching others; however, the episode goes all-out emotionally for Homer’s last night. Sitting awake in the living room, he’s no longer a wacky TV dad. He’s just a working stiff, staring into the abyss. Powerful stuff.

3) “Like Father, Like Clown”

You’d think that estranged parents and Jewish culture, thorny topics for any show, would prove impossible for an animated sitcom. But leave it to The Simpsons to entangle the two in its hilarious, heartfelt riff on The Jazz Singer. The ending is utterly moving, as Krusty and his father join in singing “O Mein Papa”—just the kind of big, emotional finale you’d expect from a larger-than-life showbiz figure like Krusty.

2) “Lisa’s Substitute”

“You are Lisa Simpson.” Such a simple sentence, but it rings so true. Coupled with Dustin Hoffman’s understated performance as Mr. Bergstrom, it’s enough to put a lump in my throat every time I watch the phenomenal “Lisa’s Substitute.” A touchstone for brainy kids everywhere, the episode makes the tragic acknowledgment that loss is part of personal growth, but no easier for it. We’ll miss you, Mr. Bergstrom.

1) “Mother Simpson”

The other episodes on this list tell some pretty heartrending stories about loss and reconciliation, but nothing can match the emotional scope, gravity, and finesse of “Mother Simpson.” Homer’s long-lost mother may disappear again, but he learns that she loves him, and that’s enough. The ending, with Homer pensively stargazing, is both a model of restraint and a signal to start crying. It’s a sobering reminder of how powerful silence can be.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Lisa’s Pony

By Andreas

As we continue with the new, condensed version of “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis,” we arrive at an episode that’s pure genius in how it explores Homer and Lisa’s fraught father/daughter relationship. Blending powerful drama with physical and verbal comedy, “Lisa’s Pony” has the best of both worlds, and a sophisticated analysis of the Simpson family’s internal dynamics. It gets so much comic mileage out of its inherently absurd premise—Homer buys Lisa a pony in a bid to redeem himself as a father—but keeps itself grounded in stark emotional reality. It’s about the disastrous personal and financial consequences of rash decisions, all rooted in the basic irony of trying to realistically represent a preposterous situation.

It’s also crammed with great character moments for a panoply of Springfield residents. Early on, for example, we witness the Springfield Elementary talent show, which sets the episode’s events in motion; as usual, Principal Skinner is being something less than a model of patience and academic authority. While watching Milhouse’s underwhelming attempt to play the spoons, he groans, “You know, they seem to get worse every year.” Then as the act ends, he walks onstage, and proclaims to the gathered parents: “You know, I think this is the best batch we’ve ever had! I really do!” This is in line with the usual jokes about the school administration being jaded and hateful (like Skinner’s fantastic “We both know these children have no future!” from “The PTA Disbands”), but takes it a step further by having him turn around and, without missing a beat, lie to the parents’ faces.

Read more about Skinner, Apu, and Homer’s parenting after the jump.

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E.T.: The Sacred Cow

I want to perfectly straightforward about this: I have never liked E.T. (1982). For whatever reason, the universally beloved sci-fi classic never resonated with me as a child. So, when I learned about Ryan Kelly and Adam Zanzie’s Spielberg Blogathon, I decided to give it a second chance. After all, I hadn’t seen it in maybe 10-15 years; maybe my reactions would be more positive this time around? Alas, they weren’t. For all its considerable virtues, I still find the film treacly and phenomenally overrated.

This is one of the difficulties of criticizing E.T. It’s so intensely adored and consistently praised by legions of fans that in maligning it, I feel like I’m kicking a puppy. But what can I say? I don’t like it. It doesn’t work for me. At the heart of the film, and my dislike, is the relationship between Elliott (Henry Thomas) and E.T. Normally, I love relationships between children and their secret friends (see, for example, Let the Right One In), but here it’s played as self-consciously cutesy, darting back and forth between broad comedy and unearned pathos.

One second I’m being cued to laugh as E.T. waddles around, comically exploring life on earth, and the next second I’m prompted to cry because this all-important friendship is in danger. “Look, isn’t this tragic?” the movie seems to ask. I’m also turned off by Elliott’s constant, grating self-righteousness—his assumption that, in his state of innocence and childish wonder, he’ll know what path is best to take – and the way that Spielberg implicitly agrees with him. Worst of all, though, is John Williams’ score. It pounds in every emotion, leaving nothing to the imagination, letting you know the awe or sadness or relief you’re supposed to be feeling, and never lets up.

I have other quibbles with E.T.: its soppy melodrama; its flip-flopping about whether the government agents are good or evil; its endorsement of consumer culture as synonymous with childhood, as in the scene where Elliott cross-promotes Star Wars merchandise to his new buddy’s delight; and finally, that fucking rainbow as E.T.’s spaceship flies away. It’s so garish and unnecessary. I understand that the moment is meant to be magical and enchanting à la The Wizard of Oz; the rainbow is the gilt on the lily.

All of this is not to say that I find E.T. totally worthless. I just don’t think it deserves the enthusiastic critical accolades it’s received since its release, setting it up as this unassailable masterpiece. For me, it’s symptomatic of Spielberg’s worst and best qualities. In terms of the former, it’s ultra-commercial (and with one rerelease after another, the E.T. profits never stop flowing), preachy, and about as subtle as a hammer to the face, painting with the very broadest of strokes.

On the other hand, it is technically marvelous, and the special effects that create E.T. are wonderful. It’s also very scary when it wants to be (especially as the government agents invade the house), a reminder of Spielberg’s considerable talent for white-knuckle horror from Duel to Jaws and Jurassic Park. Early on, the film shows an interest in the clichés of Cold War sci-fi—note the resemblance between E.T.’s fingers and those on the Martians from War of the Worlds (1953)—and, until it descends into the childish hi-jinks that dominate the film, it does its best to toy with genre conventions.

What I like most about E.T. is how Spielberg lovingly evokes small-town California and realistically depicts familial relationships. The banter that flies between Elliott’s mother (Dee Wallace-Stone), brother (Robert MacNaughton), and sister (Drew Barrymore) is what really works here for me. It rings so true, and therefore contrasts all the more with the human/alien interactions, which come off as precious.

E.T. contains bits and pieces that I love, but it’s all overshadowed by the film’s insistence on Elliott and E.T.’s relationship as self-evidently tragic—and on E.T. as a goofy, childlike messiah. Beyond that, I’m just a little peeved by the film’s glowing critical reception from 1982 to the present day, whose language often implies that to not enjoy E.T. is to not enjoy the cinema, or life. I do not enjoy E.T. Make of that what you will. What about you?

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