Nickelodeon’s “Hey Arnold” is a show that I loved as a kid and appreciate so much more as an adult. The series was created by Craig Bartlett and aired from 1996 until 2004. It’s held a special place in my heart all these years because it dealt with darker themes than you would normally find on a children’s cartoon. The show centered on a fourth grader named Arnold and his group of friends. Though the show was about Arnold, many episodes focused on his classmate Helga.
In my opinion, the most interesting character on the show is Helga Pataki. She is the bully of the group. She is brash, bossy, and intimidating. She also happens to be secretly and hopelessly in love with Arnold, the person she picks on the most. She is one of the most complex and intriguing female characters I’ve seen. The episode “Helga on the Couch” is an excellent character study. In it, we learn all about Helga’s backstory and what may motivate her behavior. In the episode, Helga is sent to a child psychologist due to her aggressive behavior (she punches people in the face). Helga warms up to the psychologist and opens up about her home life. Her aggression stems from her neglectful parents. They have compared Helga to her older, overachieving sister Olga for her entire life. Her father expects perfection from his family while her mother is a dazed, disconnected housewife who self-medicates with “smoothies.” Yes, this Nickelodeon cartoon addressed the effects of having an alcoholic in the family on more than one occasion. The A.V. Club compiled a list of the episodes of “Hey Arnold” that best demonstrate the show’s subtle adult humor.
Helga tells the psychologist that the only person who has ever shown her kindness is Arnold. She recalls the story of first meeting him at pre-school. He lent her his umbrella, offered her his snack, and she was instantly smitten. Helga has kept her feelings about Arnold a secret from everyone, but in one emotional outburst, tells the psychologist that she loves him and fantasizes about a future with him. She thinks her feelings are wrong and unhealthy saying “I guess I’m pretty sick aren’t I? I mean, I once sculpted Arnold’s likeness out of wads of his used gum.”
To the outside world Helga is a bully, but deep down she is a creative, mature, and sensitive person who craves affection. The psychologist assures her that the feelings she has are a good way to express herself. I love that this episode dealt with serious issues in a non-preachy way. The audience knows Helga is searching for the attention she should be getting from her family. My favorite thing about this episode is how it demonstrates that Helga’s love of Arnold is something she needs, even if it isn’t reciprocated. The feelings she has for Arnold are the only bright spots in her life. She’s able to escape to a fantasy life when things at home are bad. I can relate to that feeling of clinging to something intangible because it gives you hope for a better life. I’m still amazed that a children’s cartoon addressed that theme so poignantly.
This is when Helga first meets Arnold, the first person to really notice her.