A Kids’ Show Like No Other

Arthur set new standards for children’s media thanks to its humor, humanity, and life lessons—and a little help from Tufts experts

Turn on PBS this summer and you might catch “The Contest,” an episode of the children’s TV show Arthur, whose 25 seasons are continuing to air following the series finale in February.

The fourth episode of the fourth season, “The Contest” begins on a lazy summer day, with Arthur the aardvark and his friends lying in the grass, watching the clouds. To beat the boredom, they enter a competition to write an episode of their favorite show—and things get wacky fast. Buster’s episode features aliens who abduct Arthur, but decide he’s too high-cholesterol to be eaten, while Brain’s protagonist brews a formula that turns Arthur into Bigfoot.

Beyond the kid-friendly goofiness is a sense of humor that’s decidedly more grown-up—mimicking the animation styles of South Park, Beavis and Butthead, and playing off the guy-on-the-therapist’s-couch trope—and an even more meta layer, as the friends debate conflict and drama, and how to entertain, educate, and do right by their viewers. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to show hitting on a kids’ show,” Brain tells Francine and Binky, whose episode features pro boxing (and the United Press International, briefly imagined into the ring thanks to Binky’s overzealous transcription of photo captions).

That zany, multilayered, self-referential sense of humor is a big reason Arthur aired for a quarter of a century—making it the longest-running animated  show in the history of children’s television—and maintained such strong ratings, according to Tufts child study and human development professor Julie Dobrow. But there’s much more to the show. It has won six Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Children’s Television; played a central role in Tufts projects exploring positive social-emotional development, diversity in children’s TV, and early civic engagement; and empowered generations of fans.

“They have always done a brilliant job on Arthur in deploying children’s imaginary lives. It’s a beautiful way of envisioning how a child’s imagination can actually lead to something in real life,” said Dobrow, who regularly uses Arthur episodes in all of her courses about children and media, and whose former student Deb Frank, A15, went on to become a producer on the show. “And for children, who have so few real choices in their lives, it empowers them and shows them kids actually do have some ability to make decisions.”

This is certainly the case with “The Contest,” which ends with Arthur and his friends, now teenagers, once again watching the clouds—only this time they jump up and depart together, no longer bored, planning the stories they will write about their own lives. “It shows us how powerful imagination can be,” Dobrow said.

A playground for social-emotional learning

Originally a series of illustrated children’s books, Arthur took on a whole new life when it transitioned from page to screen under the guidance of executive producer Carol Greenwald, who was with the show from beginning to end and worked closely with both Dobrow and Frank. Characters’ backstories expanded, new ones appeared, the fictional Elwood City grew, and new young readers flocked to libraries for the original books.

This was remarkable because children’s stories sometimes lose richness when they transition from book to screen, Dobrow said. “In this case, [Arthur author] Marc Brown himself was involved a lot in the decision-making of the show and had a very active voice,” said Dobrow, who was instrumental in bringing Brown’s Arthur archives—including scripts and storyboards with his original comments—to Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.

When the first episode aired, Dobrow took note because the three of her four children who were around at that time—then 5, 3 and 5 months —were laughing and seemed particularly engaged, she recalled. “I knew from the way my children were reacting that something special was going on,” she said. “It works on multiple levels simultaneously. One of the hallmarks of great children’s television is that it’s written in a way that speaks to kids and to adults, so that the grownups will want to watch along with their kids.”

Another one of those principles: realistic depictions of children’s behavior. “The characters have flaws,” said Dobrow, who asks students to write Arthur spec scripts as an assignment for her Producing Children’s Media course. “Arthur isn’t a perfect little boy, or aardvark. Sometimes he isn’t a good friend, and sometimes he gets angry, especially with his annoying little sister.”

Dobrow pointed to “Arthur’s Big Hit,” in which he punches D.W., then gets punched by the school bully. Eventually, everyone apologizes. “There are conflicts,” Dobrow said, “but they get resolved in a positive way that children can understand, that speaks to children’s social and emotional health.” (And the show keeps things light—the episode ends with Binky forming a “no hitting” club and declaring, “And if anybody breaks that rule, I'll clobber ’em.”)

Arthur’s brand of positive messaging has real effects on kids, discovered Tufts developmental science researchers in the lab of Richard Lerner, the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science and the director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. Lerner’s Arthur Interactive Media Study showed that school-aged children who read an online graphic novel based on the show later engaged in “character-relevant conversations involving humility, forgiveness, and future-mindedness.”

The characters’ flaws, besides providing teachable moments, add depth to the show. “Each character has some complexity to them,” Dobrow said. “They’re not one-dimensional, just like real kids aren’t.”

A show for everyone

Arthur and his friends are also highly relatable, said Frank, Dobrow’s former student who became a producer on the show. “Everyone sees a little bit of themselves in every single character. That’s really hard to do, and really rare,” she said. “People will say, ‘I’m a Francine, I’m a Muffy.’”

Frank sees herself in Francine, the tough, talented tomboy, and Buster, the comedian. But she particularly resonates with Arthur’s little sister, who “tells it like it is.” She said, “People really respond to D.W.’s savagery.”

The show broke new ground as it introduced a character in a wheelchair, one with autism, and one in a military family, taking pains to stay true to these real-life experiences—Frank even produced and filmed a live-action Arthur segment with a military family. And when she worked on a 2019 episode depicting the first same-sex wedding on children’s television, between Arthur’s teacher Mr. Ratburn and his partner—which helped win the show a 2019 Television Critics Association award for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming, and was nominated for a GLAAD Award for best youth-oriented LGBTQ-related TV series—Frank realized the show was even more special than she’d understood as a kid.

“It’s been representative of a lot of different family structures, cultures, and personalities, which really means a lot to people and makes them feel seen,” said Frank, who often returns to Tufts to speak in Dobrow’s classes. Audiences loved the first-season episode “My Dad, The Garbage Man,” in which Francine comes to terms with her father’s city sanitation job, she said. Frank herself recognized her grandmother in Francine’s Bubbe, played by late comedian Joan Rivers (one of the show’s many guest stars) in season 12’s “Is That Kosher?”  

Dobrow, who has studied depictions of gender, race, and ethnicity in the show as part of Eliot Pearson’s Children’s Television Project, said Arthur has been a trailblazer when it comes to diversity. “It wasn’t the first show to have gay characters or a character with cancer, but it was one of the first to deal with these issues in a more straightforward way,” she said. “The people who created Arthur recognized a lot of these issues might be considered in some quarters to be controversial, but that they are really part of children’s lives.”

More and more of children’s media has followed in Arthur’s footsteps, Dobrow added: “There’s been a lot more attention paid to which characters are onscreen. We’re starting to see a more diverse set of characters, and a real commitment to telling these stories.”

Educating, informing, and inspiring

Beyond diversity and social-emotional learning, Arthur has educated children on countless topics.

Literacy is the big one, according to Dobrow. Arthur’s last name is Read, after all. Numerous episodes revolve around books, fun independent research, and the library, or include sendoffs of popular kids’ books (example: Henry Skreever, the show’s take on Harry Potter). Ask a fan about the famous third-season musical episode, “Arthur’s Almost Live Not Real Music Festival,” and they’re likely to burst into the refrain: “Having fun isn’t hard, if you’ve got a library card!”

Music is also integral to Arthur’s educational mission, instructing even as it entertains—from the catchy, endlessly meme-ified intro (“Every day when you’re walking down the street, everybody that you meet has an original point of view”), to season 3’s “The Ballad of Buster Baxter,” featuring Art Garfunkel as a singing, narrating moose, to season 4’s “My Music Rules,” in which renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma (mistakenly called “Yo Mama” by D.W.) has a friendly faceoff—and then duet—with jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman.

The show playfully but deliberately elevates the level of discourse of typical kids’ TV. In season one’s “I’m a Poet,” friend Sue-Ellen organizes a poetry contest, which turns out to be judged by children’s poet Jack Prelutsky. In season two’s “Binky Barnes, Art Expert,” Binky does research to prove that an abstract painting in the Elwood City art museum has accidentally been hung sideways. In season 10’s “What’s Cooking?” Arthur enters a school cooking competition hosted by famous chef Ming Tsai.

The show covers the scientific process (“Prove It”), natural history (“Buster’s Dino Dilemma”), pollution (“Arthur Cleans Up”), consumer fads (“Arthur Rides the Bandwagon”), and the Internet (“The Longest 11 Minutes”). It tackles civic engagement in a cluster of episodes Frank worked on in consultation with Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts’ Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. That series includes “Arthur Takes a Stand,” in which Arthur stages a sit-in to support Elwood School’s cafeteria lady, Mrs. McGrady, with the help of late civil rights activist John Lewis.

Arthur has also offered public service announcements at important moments, such as a “Wash Your Hands” song at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frank meets many people who remember learning key life lessons from Arthur, like what to do when you fall asleep on a city bus (“Lost!”) or when you get a bad grade at school (“Buster Makes the Grade”). “Arthur has really stayed true to the heart and soul of being about real kids facing real issues,” she said. “And some of those core lessons people keep with them forever.”

A legacy continues

The series finale of Arthur, “All Grown Up,” sends off the show’s distinctive characters and honors its messages of creativity and empowerment, ending with a series of flash-forwards and a genius twist that throws the whole series into a new light. “All I will say is, the writers of the show know their characters so well that they are able to give really thoughtful representations of what they would be like at different parts of their lives,” Dobrow said.

But although the finale may have wrapped, Arthur isn’t over. Reruns will keep airing on PBS, and an abundance of Arthur-related content, including a civics collection developed with the help of Kawashima-Ginsberg, is still accessible on PBS LearningMedia. Arthur’s characters and messages will also live on through a podcast (to be launched later this year), the PBS KIDS video app, and new video shorts dealing with the importance of respectful and fact-based debate and the return to school in the fall.

And for many Arthur viewers, the show has become a part of who they are, defining their identities long into adulthood. “TV can be a really social thing, a ritualistic thing,” Dobrow said. “My students will sit down to watch Arthur as a way of bringing a new friend into their past, saying ‘If you want to understand me, you have to understand the TV shows that were important to me when I was a kid.’”

Arthur’s appeal reaches beyond its lessons, its humor, and even its characters, Dobrow said. It’s about something larger: our collective human journey from childhood to adulthood, and what we leave behind—and take with us.

“A good children’s TV show sticks with us for many reasons, especially the associations we have with them,” she said. “They remind us of a time and place in our lives when things seemed much more clear and simple.”

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