Anyone who grew up with Hey Arnold! may remember just how realistic it was for a kids’ TV show. Based on creator Craig Bartlett’s childhood experiences in Portland and Seattle, the series followed nine-year-old Arnold as he encountered relatable issues in the city he imagined called Hillwood. But while some kids’ TV often downplayed such concerns, this cartoon addressed them in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way. And with the benefit of hindsight, these 20 moments show just how unafraid Hey Arnold! was in tackling real-world problems.
20. That time Arnold got mugged
Living in the city comes with its own risks and, unfortunately, getting robbed is one them. Nonetheless, it’s still shocking to see the issue shown in a children’s show – especially when it’s as frighteningly portrayed as it was in Hey Arnold!’s episode “Mugged.” While walking home after dark, Arnold was thrown into an alleyway where a crazed thief robbed him of his change and bus pass. Scary and unsettling, the scene was enough to convince anyone to stay off the streets at night.
19. Oskar’s gambling problem
With his penchant for putting himself above everyone else, Oskar Kokoshka was a hard character to like. Yet it was hard not to feel a tinge of pity whenever this sad sack’s problems reared its heads. Throughout the show, there were repeated references to Oskar having a gambling problem. In fact, the Czech-immigrant’s debts even led to him being threatened in the episode “Oskar Gets a Job.” We only hope his poor wife Suzie wasn’t too hurt by her husband’s habit.
18. Chocolate Boy’s addiction to chocolate
By all means, drug addiction isn’t a suitable topic for kids’ TV. And even Bartlett had to find a roundabout way to tackle the issue for season five’s “Chocolate Boy.” As the episode’s titular character tried to quit his favorite sugary snack, Chocolate Boy began to exhibit symptoms of withdrawal. Things got so bad that the sweet-toothed boy dived into dumpsters in an effort to find discarded candy and even ate ants after suffering hallucinations. Just say no, kids.
17. Helga’s love for Arnold was pretty…weird
One of the show’s most famous gags was Helga’s hidden love for Arnold. Despite making his life a misery, the belittling bully would often emphatically announce her affections whenever her crush was out of earshot. In the cold light of adulthood, however, Helga’s obsession was just a little bit creepy. Not only did she carry a locket featuring a picture of Arnold wherever she went, but she also stalked him and built shrines in his image. Is it any wonder that Arnold tried to steer clear?
16. Helga didn’t exactly have the best childhood
While Helga’s love for Arnold borders on being dangerous, it was made blatantly obvious why the character latched onto him. In season four’s “Helga on the Couch,” the schoolgirl revealed that her obsession stemmed from being overlooked by her parents. Their neglect was so bad, that – after being distracted by their other daughter Olga’s piano playing – Mr. and Mrs. Pataki forgot to walk Helga to her first day of preschool. As a result, Helga developed aggressive behavior patterns that would later place her in therapy.
15. Helga’s sister had a nervous breakdown
Many children are told to reach for the stars, but the pressure of expectations can often have negative effects. Indeed, the episode “Olga Comes Home” showed how overachieving had stretched Helga’s older sister to a breaking point. After being pranked by Helga into believing that she scored a “B+” instead of an “A+” on her report card, Olga suffered a nervous breakdown and became confined to her bed. Rather than scaring kids with the consequences of failure, this episode explained that putting pressure on children isn’t always a good thing.
14. Helga’s mom had a drinking problem
Besides Helga and Olga, the Patakis had another family member stricken with personal issues. Throughout her many appearances in Hey Arnold!, mom Miriam displayed many traits synonymous with alcoholism. In particular, her penchant for making “smoothies,” slurring her words and blacking out pointed to a history of alcohol abuse. Moreover, the episode “Olga Comes Home” suggested that Miriam was also suffering from depression – a fact that would explain the character’s apathetic personality and her neglect of Helga.
13. Lila lived in poverty
One of the many lessons Hey Arnold! told kids was to never judge a book by its cover. And no clearer was this shown than through Lila Sawyer in the episode “Ms. Perfect.” After teasing the seemingly immaculate new student in her first few days of class, the girls of P.S. 118 discovered that Lila and her unemployed father lived in abject poverty. With no means of support and very little food in the kitchen, Lila’s situation highlighted the struggles many real-life families face each day.
12. The time Arnold dreamed about his grandpa’s jaw falling off
It wasn’t just gritty storylines that made Hey Arnold! a surprisingly unsettling show. And – in the spirit of many kids’ cartoons – the series had its fair share of nightmare fuel too. Most notably, the episode “Part-Time Friends” featured Arnold dreaming about his potentially terrible future. In it, we saw that Grandpa Phil was still alive – albeit as an incredibly desiccated old man. If that wasn’t disturbing enough, the character’s jaw even fell off mid-laugh. Brrrr, the scene still gives us shivers today.
11. The time Grandpa Phil took some sixth graders out on a date
Speaking of Grandpa Phil, we’d be remiss to point out another creepy scene involving Arnold’s beloved father figure. After enrolling in P.S. 118 in the episode “Back to School,” Phil became very popular with his fellow classmates. So popular, in fact, that he ended up taking two sixth-grade girls out on a date. While the prospect of a much older man dating students is bad in its own right, the scene was made all the weirder by having the trio sneak into a PG-13-rated movie. Yeesh!
10. Grandma Gertie was suffering from dementia
Besides Grandpa Phil, the other main parental figure in Arnold’s life was his grandma Gertie. Even though she was an affectionate and nurturing influence on her grandson, however, Gertie had a wackier side that now looks a lot less wholesome in hindsight. Judging by her eccentricities – which included calling people by the wrong name – it seemed likely that the character suffered from dementia. And this would sometimes lead to Gertie putting herself in jeopardy, such as in the episode “Save the Tree,” where she jumped in front of a bulldozer.
9. Torvald was stuck in fourth grade for four years
In addition to examining family and individual issues, Hey Arnold! also took aim at public institutions as well. In particular, the episode “Tutoring Torvald” seemed to suggest failings within the public school system. In the episode, we discovered that Torvald – a 13-year-old bully in P.S. 118 – was stuck in the fourth grade. Rather than spend more time with this troubled student in class, his teacher Ms. Slovak instead forced Arnold to help him after school. At least Arnold was able to bump his grades up to a C+.
8. Sid made a voodoo doll of his principal
In a similar vein to Torvald, Sid was also on the receiving end of P.S. 118’s lax approach to education. During the season three episode “Sid’s Revenge,” the cap-wearing student was sentenced to detention by Principal Wartz despite being innocent of the alleged crime. Afterwards, Sid became so distraught that he even carved a voodoo doll of the educator in an act of retribution. We’ve all had that one teacher we despised, but we have to admit that even this seemed a little dark.
7. Phoebe was plagued by guilt after cheating on a poetry contest
Of course, one of the smartest kids in Hillwood was Helga’s shy and bespectacled friend Phoebe Heyerdahl. But even a kid as bright as her would still try and cheat her way through class. After winning a poetry competition with somebody else’s work, though, the student became remorseful in “Phoebe Cheats.” And through an overbearing statue of Emily Dickinson awarded as first prize – which continually yelled the word “cheater” at her – the show found a creepily effective way of portraying guilt on-screen.
6. Harold was the victim of fat shaming
Despite sometimes making his classmate’s lives a misery, Harold Berman – Hey Arnold!’s resident bully – was often made a victim himself. In the episode “Weighing Harold,” the bulky child became obsessed with losing weight. Nonetheless, the pressure of slimming down made him heavier than before. As he confided to Arnold later, however, Harold was actually happy with his original weight, but the constant jibes of friends and strangers made him depressed about his appearance. By all means, it’s a feeling to which anyone struggling with their self-image can relate.
5. Curly had a borderline personality disorder
Every school had that one kid who was a little different. And for the kids of P.S. 118, that kid was the mercurial Curly. Behind the character’s strange habits, though, lay a child suffering from severe psychological ailments. Indeed, his habit of losing his cool over insignificant problems fit perfectly with symptoms of bipolar and borderline personality disorders. The most blatant example of this can be found in the episode “Curly Snaps,” where the fourth grader locked himself inside the principal’s office after not being made ball monitor.
4. Rhonda went broke… and had absolutely no idea how to deal with being poor
Possibly the wealthiest kid in school, Rhonda Wellington Lloyd was spoiled well beyond her peers. But – after her parents lost their money in “Rhonda Goes Broke” – the character was forced to live life on the lower rung of the social ladder. Unlike her classmate Lila, Rhonda did not take well to her new situation, going so far as to alienate Arnold with her constant contempt for lower caste life. Class divisions aren’t usually examined in kids’ shows, but Hey Arnold! did it perfectly here.
3. Stoop Kid was abandoned as a baby
In its five-season run, Hey Arnold! dealt with a lot of weighty issues. And some of them were pretty heartbreaking to boot. Just take the case of Stoop Kid, for instance. Introduced in only the show’s third episode, the character suffered from extreme agoraphobia and refused to leave his stoop after being abandoned by his parents as a child. That being said, Bartlett later admitted to BuzzFeed that things had worked out fine for him in the end. “He went to the Great Pyramids,” he admitted in 2016.
2. When vandals caused Pigeon Man to give up on humanity
Many kids’ stories have happy endings. Alas, the tale of Pigeon Man from Hey Arnold!’s first season was not one of them. Ostensibly a story of loneliness and alienation, the episode followed Arnold’s attempts to reintegrate an isolated man back into society. However, the plan backfired when Harold, Stinky and Joey accidentally destroyed Pigeon Man’s dwellings, causing the hermit to completely lose faith in other people. We’d expect a message like this to appear in gritty mature shows such as Game of Thrones, but not on Nickelodeon!
1. The tragedy of Mr. Hyunh
On the surface, Arnold’s neighbor Mr. Hyunh was the picture of joy. But behind his unflappable veneer lay one of the series’ saddest stories. Born in Vietnam, Hyunh lived with his infant daughter Mai when the country’s civil war started. Unwilling to raise his daughter in the war torn nation, the parent attempted to escape, but a shortage of transport forced him to send his daughter to safety alone. Although the father would see Mai again 20 years later, Hyunh’s tale still packed an emotional punch.