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October 19, 2017

The golden age of ‘Arthur’ comes to an end

Courtesy of PBS

A nostalgic, familiar sight as Arthur and his friends are sitting in class with Mr. Ratburn, studiously paying attention as the curmudgeonly teacher drones on about math. But something is off. None of the characters look quite right. Their outlines are bolder and there’s almost no subtlety to their expressions.

And now they’re moving, but again, something about the aesthetic just feels wrong. Francine has gotten out of her seat and is walking as if she’s a puppet, jerking her limbs and awkwardly gliding across the classroom floor like some horror out of “Silent Hill.” And what’s this? She’s dropped a banana peel. What follows is exactly what you’d expect – a goofy, disappointing attempt to generate laughter as Francine slips on the peel and slides right into the chalkboard.

What happened to the show I used to love?

“Arthur,” the long-running PBS series about an adolescent aardvark and his friends, was a staple of my childhood. The show beautifully captured Marc Brown’s thoughtful children’s books, giving life to the characters by giving them a voice and putting them in motion. The animation was detailed, the stories were well-written and the dialogue was tight. After getting its start in 1994, it remains the network’s longest running show aside from “Sesame Street,” and the second longest-running cartoon on American TV other than “The Simpsons.”

There was a reason for the show’s success. The writers exhibited extraordinary insight on how to communicate serious ideas to kids – more so than perhaps any other children’s television series to date. Consider the classic episode Prove It!, where D.W. creates her own backyard “science” museum. Much to the chagrin of Arthur’s friend The Brain, she proceeds to use her creation to spread misinformation to all of the other kids in the neighborhood. At once, D.W. becomes the face of every pseudoscientific argument in modern political discourse.

This is a perfect example of how the writers refused to talk down to their audience, elementary school kids or no. Using D.W. as a vehicle, they framed the situation so that any child watching the show could explain why she is wrong and The Brain is right. I happen to know more than a few politicians who could stand to listen to their wisdom, too.

The showrunners also had an uncannily deft grasp of popular culture. Remember when “Arthur” predicted the meteoric rise of hologram bands like Gorillaz and Hatsune Miku with the episodes Binky Rules and Meet Binky? What about when Muffy starts a blog and almost ruins her friendship with Francine in a desperate attempt to drive traffic to her site? Or the time “Arthur” riffed on “Beavis and Butthead,” “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Dr. Katz” and the “WWE” all in one episode? That’s right – it’s called The Contest and it’s a beautiful piece of intertextual commentary. Go watch it.

All this being said, you can imagine my surprise when I flipped on an episode from Season 16 of “Arthur” called Flippity Francine and saw the scene described above. This is not the “Arthur” I grew up with. This isn’t the “Arthur” that was, up until the most recent season, teaching kids using high-quality art and meaningful morality tales. What now stands in for the show is a traitorous abomination of what was once poignant children’s fare. And I’m mad.

Apparently, some behind-the-scenes drama has led to “Arthur” switching from Cookie Jar Entertainment to Story 9 Entertainment for Season 16 and 17. This new studio uses flash-based techniques instead of the traditional approach that bore the show through its infancy. While the old process was likely more costly and time-consuming, it also forced the writers to come up with situations and humor that relied on intelligence and wit instead of low-brow slapstick gags.

The new “Arthur” takes the insult beyond its visual shortcomings. These new episodes, with their strange puppet-like animation, belie their severely-altered style by using the same intro that has opened the show since Season 1. Indeed, Ziggy Marley’s famous theme song and the classic animation of seasons past open every new episode of “Arthur.” But those catchy lyrics no longer bring with them the promise of the masterworks of yore. Instead, they represent the disingenuous nature of this new, Frankensteinian monstrosity.

It’s too painful to go on describing what’s become of “Arthur”. Suffice it to say that you’ve desecrated something holy, PBS. And I say, “Hey, it’s not a wonderful kind of day.”

Søren Hough can be reached at shhough@umass.edu.

Comments
16 Responses to “The golden age of ‘Arthur’ comes to an end”
  1. Tom says:

    Do you think maybe you’re just not a kid anymore? You’re an adult.

  2. Soren Hough says:

    Hi Tom! I see where you’re coming from, but I remain to this day an avid follower and fan of animation. Moreover, the classic episodes I listed I have revisited and remain as pertinent, well-written, well-animated and cutting edge as they were when they aired. Nostalgia and childhood are really beside the point; viewed objectively, the first 1-15 seasons of Arthur are of the highest quality, regardless of age. Season 16-17, not so much.

  3. Stefan Runge says:

    I agree the new looking arthur stinks

    I like the old one better

    A bunch of my friends don’t even watch it anymore

    Stefano

  4. Kim says:

    I thought I was the only one who felt that way. The show has really crumbled, and I am not a fan of the new animation.
    Great article!

  5. Joe H says:

    Great article Soren. Arthur has always had a special place in my heart, with the positive message (I know the lyrics of the theme song by heart) and ‘educational’ content. Strangely enough, I didn’t discover Arthur until I was nearly 30 years old, when I was on the pediatrics service during my medical training. There will always be folks like [the commenter] Tom, don’t let it get you down. This has nothing to do with age.

    To this day Arthur is one of my favourite television shows. Of course I, and most of my friends, are not the usual plebian / philistine viewers that prefer (non-real, scripted) reality TV to an evening reading Dostoevsky, so unfortunately much of the change will go unrecognized by most adults. I actually rarely watch commercial television. The puppet-like flash animation is a real departure from the authentic art of the past. Perhaps the acquisition by DHX Media had something to do with it.

    The fact that you have such insight and can write so well about this change shows you likely have a bright future. Good luck!

  6. Soren Hough says:

    Hello Kim and Joe H,

    Thank you so much for your kinds words. Arthur clearly has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts. I’m glad my words held meaning for you both.

  7. Anna says:

    Arthur isn’t an “adolescent,” he’s an 8 year old child lol

  8. Diane Negron says:

    I really hope they go back to a more classic type of animation. The newer episodes feel so wrong.

  9. Lana says:

    Great article! I always wondered why, after going to middle school, then high school, then university , I always remained a fan of Arthur ? I thought omg why am I so into a kids show? But your reasons now tell me exactly why I remained such a loyal fan to the show.

    The beautiful animation is 40% of it and I cannot believe they switched to the new style.

  10. Viv says:

    I absolutely agree. It’s like it doesn’t exist anymore. I miss the old animations. I didn’t mind in the past when I saw the animations changes, because they were subtle. Now it’s all over the place with this bad animation. I hope this isn’t the future of animation. I really don’t 🙁

  11. Chris says:

    The show actually started 1996 not 1994. Now Oasis Animation is doing Season 20. It’s still less Flash compared to 9 Story Entertainment.

  12. Jasmine T says:

    Totally agree! I for one study animation and work with it in order to major in Animation and Character Illustration, and comparing the old episodes to the new, the animation has gotten cheaper and terrible. Like many shows recently, companies are using flash animation to finish the episodes at a faster rate because its being demanded much more than before. You have shows like Arthur, Teen Titans Go, Home (the Netflix series) and Turbo Fast, who all use Flash animation because its a newer concept but the animation itself looks broken, choppy, and seems to animate at a faster rate than older animated series. Now you did have older flash animated shows including Mucha Lucha, Blues Clues, and Fosters Home for Imaginary Friends that were very popular, but the animation was smooth, the lip sync on point most occasions, and the body movement perfected, silly, but perfected. Here we have flash animated shows that stiff the movement of the characters, the lip syncing doesn’t align and pronounce each word, and the color seems to be too bright and over the top, lets not forget the lines of the characters have gaps everywhere. Its sad that such high quality good animation has become a rushy mess, no hate towards the hard working animators, but the older animation concepts were better. Now many may disagree, saying “you’re just older now” and while that may be true, being older only lets you observe and see such a difference in quality, so truly your age doesn’t matter, its not getting upset over the show itself, but more over the animation change throughout the years, from hard working drawing and painting, to digital drawing, to flash animation. Its a disappointment to say the least.

  13. Annie says:

    Was just talking about how Arthur’s animation sucks nowadays with a couple of coworkers and found this article to send to them. RIP, the classic Arthur wit/style/depth of our childhood. Everything you wrote here is on point.

  14. Stephani says:

    I feel the same way. Arthur has been such a valued, helpful addition to my life as I grew up. I always appreciated the depth of the colors used in the various scenes the dialog between characters and the subject matter of each episode. I loved it. I miss it. If I want to see a simple figure, move like a flat-puppet moving on the television without any distinction I would not expect to find it on Arthur. I have grown up, but the show I still look to the show as something with not a lot of flash but an educational cartoon with simple, class.

  15. Aron says:

    You couldn’t have said it any better I was utterly disappointed when I watched one of the newer episodes,all creativity has gone out the window as well with the animation.9 story animation truely ruined what was my childhood, hopefully Marc Brown realizes the mistake he made so this program could return to it’s old glory.

  16. Natasha says:

    I completely agree! It’s TERRIBLE! I put it on for my daughter and it’s like it’s a completely different show. Thankfully we’re able to revert back to the “old” Arthur that I once grew up with. No way will I watch these new Seasons. Arthur was my favourite show as a kid. Why do the ruin things?!

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