Thanksgiving Special: Hey Arnold! – Arnold’s Thanksgiving

Arnold's Thanksgiving 1

Plot: Arnold and Helga’s Thanksgivings are complete disasters this year, as every year, so they decide to leave during the festivities. As they both vent to each other about their terrible holidays, they try to figure out if the perfect Thanksgiving is even a thing that exists.

Breakdown: This Thanksgiving special has always stood out to me, even if it does have a tad of ‘Thanksgiving-special-itis’. As I’ve mentioned before, most Thanksgiving specials all tend to follow a similar formula, “Something goes awry with the dinner, everyone thinks its ruined, and then they come together with some simple feast and enjoy the holiday because Thanksgiving isn’t about food – it’s about family and friends and being thankful for what you have.” Only this time the dinner is really only perceived as ruined by one person in each family.

There’s no escaping that idealized version of the holidays, is there? During Thanksgiving, we get that image of immaculately dressed happy people sitting down to a beautiful spread of turkey, stuffing, potatoes – the works, and getting along merrily without a care in the world. However, the real image is almost never as such.

If there’s another trope that Thanksgiving specials tend to follow it’s people avoiding their relatives because they can’t stand them for one reason or another. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to really understand why this became such a known trope.

I no longer have Thanksgivings with extended family and haven’t for many years. The last times I remember seeing extended family members on purpose was at funerals.

The closest I’ve gotten in recent years is going out for Thanksgiving with my grandma, but recent events have made the possibility of us ever inviting her out for the holiday again very slim. I just enjoy a dinner with my parents, and that’s frequently a mess too. We stress ourselves out trying to get everything ready and make the holiday special, sometimes yelling at each other in the meantime, but we almost always manage to have a pretty good night no matter how much drama went on during the creation of it.

And even though I know I’ll have an ungodly amount of dishes to deal with after the fact, I still enjoy these special times with my family. I’m very thankful for that.

I told you all of that because this episode made me think a lot about its message. It’s the very typical ‘be thankful for what you have’ but the story itself makes it difficult to really embrace this lesson.

——————————

They do a great job cementing the typical view of a traditional Thanksgiving by having the kids in a play showcasing the history of Thanksgiving complete with historical inaccuracies and mild racism. (Ah the 90s…) Arnold and Helga have to grin and bear it as they help portray the perfect modern interpretation of the holiday.

Arnold and Helga have never really had real Thanksgivings like their friends all seem to have. Arnold’s holiday isn’t even Thanksgiving. His grandma always thinks Thanksgiving is the Fourth of July, so she makes them all dress as the forefathers, cook hotdogs and burgers on the roof in the freezing cold and shoot off fireworks. You’d think this would just mean that he’d celebrate a real Thanksgiving on the Fourth of July, but Ernie states that she thinks that day is Christmas, which is weird because we know she celebrates Christmas on Christmas (Though, in the Christmas special, she played Yankee Doodle Dandy as ‘Christmas music’ and wore Happy New Year’s clothes on Christmas day….) So does she just omit Thanksgiving altogether?

They placate her, and Grandpa’s only reasoning for doing is because it’s what they do and being like everyone else would be boring.

It’s a very….unique situation for Arnold, but I guess not outside of the realm of possibility for his odd boarding house.

As for Helga….well, anyone who has seen the show and knows of her living situation probably understands why her Thanksgivings tend to blow. Bob is glued to the TV set and doesn’t bother paying Helga much attention. Miriam burns the stuffing in her (drunken) haze while also barely paying Helga any attention. And Olga, her shining star sister that her parents adore, makes a pristine dinner while making Helga do much of the grunt work. A ridiculous amount of grunt work, I might add. A family of four should not require a bushel of potatoes, and even though Bob and Miriam were the ones cutting the onions, they don’t need a mountain of chopped onions either.

Arnold's Thanksgiving 2

As extra bonuses, Bob saddles her with his own beeper-related grunt work after she gets done with Olga’s demands, and Olga’s beautiful ice swan centerpiece far outshines Helga’s pine cone centerpiece to the point that she doesn’t even want to show anyone once she sees Olga’s.

What’s interesting is that it doesn’t seem like Bob or Miriam give a single crap about Thanksgiving traditions, sentimental ones anyway, until Helga claims she’s not thankful for anything when they do that thing where they go around the table asking everyone what they’re thankful for. They all get insanely pissed about it, (well, Olga is more shocked than anything) and Bob demands she go to her room and not come out until she thinks about what she’s thankful for.

I should point out that he was about to stuff his face with food after completely ignoring Helga’s turn to say what she was thankful for. He only stopped himself when Olga reminded him about Helga. I’d understand if it was about simply defying him, but they were all shocked that she was defying tradition.

Not surprisingly, they both leave their dinners and stumble upon each other. After venting to each other about their bad Thanksgivings, Arnold suggests heading to Mr. Simmons house since he’s so nice and loves the holidays and traditions, so he must be having a great Thanksgiving they can mooch on.

When they arrive, they find an odd sight. Mr. Simmons’ family and friends all share the same names as the people in the modern interpretation of Thanksgiving – the almost too-perfect one from the start of the episode. However, they’re all terrible people who do nothing but take potshots at each other and just be overall miserable the whole time while Mr. Simmons tries to keep the mood light. They don’t even try to pretend to like each other like many tension-filled families would do.

Arnold's Thanksgiving 3

Mr. Simmons was projecting his desires onto his play, which is…very very sad. Mr. Simmons is a great guy, so it sucks for him work so hard just to have a terrible family to share it with. I don’t even really know why he’s friends with those two people. The woman (brown hair) just seems to be monotone and miserable while the guy (blond hair) is a snob.

When Helga and Arnold realize that their Thanksgivings were much better in comparison to Mr. Simmons’ they start to come around to the idea of going back home and being thankful for what they have. Mr. Simmons overhears their conversation and actually breaks down for a minute, confirming that he’s completely devastated over how terrible this dinner is going, but he loves his friends and family and always tries really hard to get them together at least once a year to be thankful for what they have. So, in his eyes, even though the dinner is a disaster, he’s thankful that he has those people.

I’m a little confused by this. If he’s happy with what he has, why is he projecting this picture-perfect version of his family onto a school play? Is it just a harsh truth of wanting something to be one way but finding it within yourself to just be happy with what you have, even if it’s crappy because you probably have it better than someone else? That might be a bit biting, though somewhat comforting. However, we’ll soon see that this message, if that is what they’re going for, falls flat in my eyes.

Helga and Arnold depart for their homes, hoping they can salvage their own Thanksgivings.

When Helga arrives at her house, she finds it in almost a comedic level of disarray. Everyone’s panicking because she went missing. Miriam’s on the phone with the cops, Bob’s gearing up in actual military garb to scout the area in his hummer and Olga printed up a ton of fliers that are honestly the most insulting part of this ending because the pictures on the fliers mostly show Olga, don’t give Helga’s name and the flier says ‘Award winning Olga Pataki’s sister.’

Arnold's Thanksgiving 4

…..I hate Olga, by the way.

I’m really kinda torn about this development mostly because the Patakis are always very inconsistent with how much they care about Helga. Most of the time, it seems like she could be missing for days and have no one notice. I wish I were exaggerating, but it’s true. Other episodes, her parents will be gung-ho about finding her or protecting her. I know that, deep down, they love her, but I feel they’re out of character for going this insane over Helga being gone for a couple of hours.

To be honest, I’m surprised they realized she was even missing. Keep in mind that these are the same people who were once so enamored by Olga’s piano playing that they neglected to realize a pre-school age Helga had left the house by herself with a lunch she had to ‘make’ herself and walked herself to school in the rain….

They sent her to her room right before dinner. Bob had dinner and football on the mind, Miriam would probably pass out in her burnt stuffing and Olga would probably be too busy gloating about something she did to notice. Unless they needed her to clean up the table and couldn’t find her.

It gets even worse when Bob and Miriam say they’re thankful for her being around. This episode is talking about the unrealistic expectations of perfect families on Thanksgiving then they throw that in? I’m sorry I’m not buying this as much as I should, but Helga’s parents are regularly terrible to her. If they’re not outright ignoring her all day, they’re treating her like crap. I feel like the sentiment of being thankful for Helga rings hollow if I know they’re just going to continue treating her like crap – especially considering this is merely a SEASON ONE EPISODE.

They’re still not done because, somehow, none of them ate either while Helga was gone, and Miriam remembered Helga’s centerpiece and made sure she saw her putting it on the table.

Arnold's Thanksgiving 5

I guess I should just be thankful Helga does get a truly happy moment with her family for a change, and if they really were being genuine here then I’m all for that. I just wish her family had progressively gotten better with Helga over time. They’d have these one-shot episodes where they learn to appreciate or pay attention to Helga more and then they’d be right back to their old tricks the next time they’d show up. It’s pretty frustrating.

If you can believe it, Arnold’s ending is even more BS. When he arrives home, he’s ready to don his stars and stripes and partake in Fourth of July festivities. However, when he gets on the roof, he finds everyone gone and the place a wreck. Everyone pops up to give him a surprise Thanksgiving with Grandpa explaining that they had heard Arnold went out to look for a real Thanksgiving (….Did….Mr. Simmons call? How could they have known he was doing that?) so they decided to make him one.

I somehow got more upset at this than Helga’s ending. Wanna know why? Because Arnold had asked several times straight out if they could have a real Thanksgiving and everyone always shot him down. But they ‘hear’ Arnold wanted a real Thanksgiving when he was gone so they decided to make him one then?

And what’s weirder is Grandma acts like none of this Fourth of July stuff was even a thing, even asking him why he’s wearing a Ben Franklin costume. I get that Arnold’s grandma probably has an unconfirmed psychological problem, which might be one of the reasons why they play along with her sometimes, but if she could be convinced that this was Thanksgiving and forget the Fourth of July so easily, why has that never happened? Did no one tell her that it was Thanksgiving and not the Fourth of July….ever? They were so adamant about not doing a traditional Thanksgiving for no real reason, but he leaves for a couple of hours and now they cater to him?

Arnold's Thanksgiving 6

(This is a bit too nitpicky, but where did they a turkey on Thanksgiving and how did they cook it in the time he had been gone?)

Like Helga, it’s great because he now gets to have his own special Thanksgiving with his family and friends, even adding the unique fireworks to the occasion (that can’t be legal) but all I’m thinking about right now is poor Mr. Simmons.

Helga and Arnold both leave their houses for a couple hours and get the as-close-to-perfect-as-they-can-get Thanksgivings that they wanted the whole time handed to them under unrealistic circumstances. Meanwhile, Mr. Simmons shows he has a terrible Thanksgiving every year and he grins and bears it for….what?

I get it, be thankful for what you have – having a crappy family and crappy friends with a roof and food is better than nothing. But Mr. Simmons deserves his unrealistically happy Thanksgiving too….and he doesn’t get it. I’m glad that he finds some sort of semblance of happiness in this situation, but I really think at least showing one legitimate happy moment between them, even tiny, would have showed that all this torment he goes through is worth it.

I’m all too familiar with family drama and massive tension. Trust me. But even though Mr. Simmons himself even said Helga and Arnold probably wouldn’t understand this, I find myself struggling to understand.

And are Helga and Arnold really encompassing the lesson of just being thankful for what they have when they were given what they wanted when they got home?

Arnold's Thanksgiving 7

If I had to think of more fitting endings given the setup, Arnold’s would be rather simple. Have him enjoy the Fourth of July stuff, but maybe they can meet halfway and make some turkey legs on the grill. Helga’s is the more complicated matter. I honestly don’t know how I’d write that to be better because any end I come up with is either equally corny or ends with Helga still being treated poorly, just being happy about it, and that’s not right.

I thought for a bit that maybe they could see Mr. Simmons have no one to celebrate Thanksgiving with, which is why he got so emotional during the play. Helga and Arnold decide to have a small Thanksgiving with him, but they realize they miss some of the little special traditions they have at each of their houses and they should have been more grateful. Arnold invites Mr. Simmons over for…The Fourth of July and they all have a pretty good time.

Meanwhile, Helga, who continues to be the difficult spot here, would maybe go home to her family coming to the realization that she said she wasn’t thankful for anything because they can be major d-bags to her and assure her that they are thankful for her even if they have difficulty showing it?

I hate to come off as such as sourpuss in a review of a Thanksgiving special that I have enjoyed since I was a kid, especially since, as far as I can tell, it’s a beloved holiday special. Definitely not as widely remembered or beloved as Arnold’s Christmas special, but the video reviews I managed to find on it called it beautiful, warm and amazing. However, looking it at more closely now leaves me very conflicted, especially if you’re trying to tell this story to people like Mr. Simmons who have crappy Thanksgivings or none at all.

Someone in the Youtube comments section of the aforementioned reviews described it perfectly – It’s It-Could-Be-Worse-giving. I don’t know if I’m just getting too cynical in my old age, but that sentiment doesn’t fill me with warm fuzzies – it kinda just makes me sad. As I’ve pointed out in this review, Arnold and Helga realize they could have it worse and go home fully ready to accept the situations they have, but they’re gifted what they wanted for Thanksgiving, even if it’s not quite the picture-perfect version they envisioned. We only see them embrace their gratefulness for a moment before they get these endings.

This isn’t really a bad episode at all, even though I will ding it for the instances of OOCness. It’s actually a pretty good episode with nice heart behind it. It’s just that the message feels muddled given the way the story goes. After thinking it over quite a bit, let me sum up what I’ve concluded from this story.

Always be thankful for what you have, even if your home life isn’t great. However, don’t feel bad about wishing for something better, even if part of that is wishing the people around you were better to you, each other or as a whole. Be the example, like Mr. Simmons, and hopefully one day things will get a little better bit by bit. You may not have the perfect Thanksgiving fall into your lap, but your outlook on it can make it more enjoyable and maybe even rub off on those around you.

If anything, I’m thankful this special has made me think so deeply about this subject and appreciate my own family and holidays more. Hopefully, it has done something similar with you.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 🙂


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4 thoughts on “Thanksgiving Special: Hey Arnold! – Arnold’s Thanksgiving

  1. Thanks for writing this- I think we’re seeing more people embracing the idea that they’re families and holidays aren’t going to be picture perfect, so this episode was sort of ahead of its time (minus the sappy endings).

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