by Neyat Yohannes
With a white collared shirt worn under a canary yellow v-neck sweater, snug blue jeans, and brown-rim coke bottle glasses, we have the trappings of one book-loving anthropomorphic aardvark: Arthur Read. Arthur, the perpetual eight year-old, who spends much of his time telling on his sister D.W. or hanging out with his fellow third grade friends unsupervised at the Sugar Bowl is the titular character of the children’s show based on books by Marc Brown.
The denizens of Elwood City are a motley crew of rats as strict teachers with penchants for handing out obscene amounts of homework, monkeys as millionaires with used automobile dealerships, dyslexic Norwegian moose who practice ventriloquism in their spare time, and fortune-telling poodles with an interest in the paranormal. Of course, the Arthur series does expect its viewers to suspend their disbelief like any other kids show–I mean, an Aardvark family that lives in a house and has a puppy for a pet defies logic, nevermind the fact that they can speak and wear clothes–but there is an intriguing sophistication to the series that keeps its older viewers tuned in long after the little ones are down for the count and asleep in a curled ball somewhere.
With nearly 20 seasons and counting, Arthur has served up quality content sprinkled with fun references and meta moments galore for the older set to appreciate. A particular episode–the eleventh one in the third season–packs the biggest punch nostalgia-wise because of its musical component. ‘Arthur’s Almost Live Not Real Music Festival’ encapsulates all of the nuances that make Arthur such an impactful television program.
The episode opens with Arthur’s burgeoning sociopath of a kid sister D.W. investigating a conspicuous noise coming from somewhere in the Reads’ home. The booming sounds eventually lead her to the basement, where Arthur’s best friend and rabbit Buster is beatboxing from the inside of a cardboard box as Arthur videotapes it with what was at the time possibly state of the art, but now is a defunct camcorder. D.W. is suspicious of the set-up. The boys insist they’re making music videos but she doesn’t buy it. “It’s not real,” she retorts. More quick witted than usual, Buster counters, “What’s so great about being real?” And thus, the same way viewers of the Arthur show devote a half hour to taking in something that isn’t real, D.W. acquiesces to the whimsicality of homespun entertainment and the music videos commence. The series often enjoys poking fun at itself in this way–acknowledging the fact that it is merely a work of fiction set in a fictional town much like Boston–conceived from the imaginations of a writing staff based in Canada.
The musical production opens with an ode to the library card. A wide shot shows neighborhood kids stomping down the street in an aggressive pack with highly visible, almost enlarged, library cards in tow. On their way to Elwood City’s athenaeum, they sing-shout, “Having fun isn’t hard, when you’ve got a library card!” This is an apt beginning for a show that has always doubled as an on-going gratuitous advertisement for the public library.
In the following song, Brain–a Senegalese Bear and local genius–recounts his immersive experience reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this surreal music video, Brain finds himself turning into the characters from the novella. Sure, this scene is still exciting for the target audience who likely hasn’t read or heard of this tale, but for those in the room that have, it’s a special treat.
The next video is devoted to the frustration of living with a chef for a father who desperately wants to pass his refined palate down to his children. Arthur and D.W. moan about all of the bizarre, stomach-churning dishes David Read has tried stuffing down their throats to the tune of classical and operatic pieces like Jacques Offenbach’s “Can-Can” and “Les Toreadors” from Georges Bizet’s, Carmen. It’s never too early start building your opera repertoire, kids, especially considering that there is another Arthur episode focusing on Carmen!
The next song is a bizarrely sexy doo-wop number about a very un-sexy subject matter: homework. Mr. Ratburn, the green suited third grade teacher notorious for assigning too much work to his students, croons about what he’s got in store for that evening. To the dismay of his class, he’d like for them to read 19 chapters of history, chart Balboa’s journey, list 63 adverbs alphabetically, and do the first thousand problems in their new math book. Their faces grow weary as he sings the refrain, “Just a little homework, tonight.”
The music festival wraps up with a second rendition of “Library Card.” In unison, everyone chants the last-minute reminder, “And don’t forget the Dewey Decimal System is your friend!” D.W. who is unaware of the library classification system brought to us by Melvil Dewey begs the question, “Who’s Dewey?” at the top of her lungs repeatedly in the annoying way only D.W. can until the production comes to an end.
When we return to the reality of the situation–a rabbit and two aardvarks in a dank basement–D.W. resolves, “It was okay for the basement, but it would never work on real T.V.” One final wink from the folks at WGBH Boston and Cookie Jar Entertainment Studios.
It’s tough to pinpoint a favorite episode of a series with such range in its archives and memorable guest starring roles by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Mr. Rogers, the Backstreet Boys, Frank Gehry, Michelle Kwan, and countless other esteemed individuals who were willing to voice animated caricatures of themselves. So, no, this isn’t by any means the best episode of Arthur. It is, however, the perfect sampler episode. It offers bite-size helpings of everything the series has in its arsenal–music, literature, culture, and the human condition depicted by anthropomorphic animals as to lull the show’s audience members into a false sense of calm at the notion that this show isn’t about them.