Saying Goodbye to My Childhood Friend Arthur

For 25 years, the PBS show traced the contours of childhood, showing us new ways to navigate them.

Arthur the aardvark
PBS / Everett

In the household where I was raised, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” often felt like the highest commandment. My grandmother, who worked as a nurse on Rikers Island at the peak of the AIDS crisis, fashioned our home in Queens as a place where everyone was welcome. Patriarchs played dominoes in the den and neighbors swung by to say hi. Reggae blasted from our dusty record player while church sermons competed from the kitchen radio. And every day after school, my favorite show’s theme song joined the chorus from the living-room television:

And I say, hey! What a wonderful kind of day
If you could learn to work and play
And get along with each other

That song, which introduced the PBS show Arthur, was the leading single on the soundtrack to my childhood. Ziggy Marley’s smooth croon was an invitation: How about, for a few minutes, we dream up a world where we can reconcile our differences? The call was appealing and lofty. Those drums and rhythms sounded like my family’s music. I was a quiet kid, but my mother tells me that when that song started, I would light up. I was happy to see my friend again. He also looked a bit like me: round face, rounder glasses. If he were real, I imagined, we’d hang out.

After 25 years, the final season of Arthur airs this week. It’ll have been the longest-running animated children’s series in history. For the generation raised on Arthur, the show was full of meaningful lessons, never boring, and rarely heavy-handed. Today, its ideas feel radically optimistic, its mission unfinished. As it winds to a close, the show leaves questions behind. How do you practice empathy when your neighbors are more skeptical of one another than ever before? And how do you come to terms with a friend leaving at a time you might need him the most?

Reflecting on the place Arthur has occupied in my life is challenging because the show was so all-encompassing. When I got picked on for getting my first pair of glasses, there was an episode for that. When I discovered a love of reading at the library, there was an episode (and a rap) for that. That Arthur began as a bedtime story is fitting, because watching it felt like opening a storybook that traced the contours of childhood, showing us new ways to navigate them.

Arthur distinguished itself clearly from other shows. If Sesame Street was the show parents put on so that their children wouldn’t forget the alphabet or how to be kind, Arthur was the daytime soap that kids graduated into. It made us feel just a little grown, or on the way to it. Educational children’s television has to achieve two things: A kid has to recognize themselves in a character to internalize the show’s lessons, and the show has to be engaging enough to keep their attention. So you get characters like Caillou: a bit of a brat, but blank enough of a slate to project happiness, disappointment, anger—emotions that kids need help understanding—onto. The strength of Arthur was in its holistic approach to reflecting its viewers. It passed the baton of its episodes to a cast of characters beyond its lead. In many ways, the show was a decades-long ensemble play.

Nerds, bullies, punk kids, computer geeks, tomboys, and princesses all got screen time. And not just that: They got arcs, interiority, and plots that presented elements of their identity at odds with the world around them. Francine Frensky grappled with breaking her fast on Yom Kippur at a pizza party. Arthur stood up for his school’s overworked lunch lady after an anthropomorphic bear, voiced by John Lewis, taught him about the importance of persistence. D.W. was the voice of a generation of tantrum-prone little sisters. Sue Ellen Armstrong came to appreciate being an only child after realizing that siblings aren’t always fun. Binky Barnes, a sometimes-bully, embraced the more tender sides of his personality.

Something beautiful happens when a children’s show takes its characters beyond the talk-singy cadence of a substitute teacher. Arthur’s creator, Marc Brown, wrote characters who were easily digestible but rarely flat caricatures. The show rendered itself at eye level with kids, instead of patronizing them from above.

One of my favorite episodes starts with Arthur on his living-room couch, clicking through TV channels. A reporter delivers a sober dispatch from a war zone. Politicians yell over each other during a televised debate. Two women fight on The Freddy Spangler Show, a nod to Jerry Springer. It’s great satire.

“Boy! Sometimes it feels like the whole world is filled with nothing but fighting. I mean, why is it so hard for people to get along?” Arthur muses, before D.W. interrupts him and draws his ire. They ruin their father’s soufflé while scuffling in the kitchen, and are grounded. When they sit down with their parents to recount their sides of the story, Arthur sketches and D.W. uses her dolls as stand-ins for her and her brother. A reenactment of the episode follows suit. Arthur’s stick-figure testimony is animated. D.W.’s dolls come to life. Of course, all is well in the end. They acknowledge their shared responsibility in the accident, and come together to remake their father’s dish. The episode is emblematic of what a classic Arthur story could achieve in 11 minutes. Conflict is presented in the context of the larger world, and a mix of imagination and realism brings us to a resolution.

I’ve been revisiting Arthur for that very promise of resolution. Life these days feels more like a pile-on of active traumas, a new one introduced before there is time to process and acknowledge the last. We’re living through a time that asks us to be pragmatic and resourceful with little sense of where our North Star lies. So I’ve found comfort in the fictional Elwood City’s bend toward justice and reconciliation. I was moved, and saddened, by a digital Arthur short released a few months after George Floyd’s murder that aptly referred to racism as a disease while acknowledging a sobering truth: Large, systemic issues call for systemic solutions. Being a kid staring at a giant is hard.

I’ll miss knowing that a growing repertoire of Arthur episodes is keeping pace with our times. But there’s an episode for that feeling too. In the Season 2 episode “Arthur’s Faraway Friend,” Arthur’s best friend, Buster Baxter, leaves Elwood City to travel with his father for several months after his parents’ divorce. In the show, this held real implications. Buster is away until Season 3. How will they finish the adventure book they’re writing together? What if Buster forgets about Arthur while he’s gone? After talking with a friend about how hard it feels to say goodbye, Arthur accepts that it might be hard for Buster too.

“Sue Ellen says going somewhere new is tough,” he tells Buster in their tree house. “So it’s okay if you’re scared.” Not long after Buster leaves, Arthur gets mail from him: keepsakes from his travels and a list of places he’s going so that they can keep in touch. “I do miss him, but I don’t mind if he doesn’t come back for a long time,” Arthur says. “He’s having a lot of fun. And besides, I just got an idea for our second adventure book. There’s a lot more places he has to go to.”

Even though this is the end, the places we went with Arthur will always be there. If I have children of my own in the future, maybe we’ll revisit them together. And hey: What a wonderful kind of day that’ll be.