My daughter and I started watching PBS’ Arthur when she was a toddler. We’ve slacked off the past couple years (what with her being in high school and all), but quotes from its 190-plus episodes get thrown around our house as easily and often as around Star Wars or Doctor Who references.
Because here’s a secret: Marc Brown’s bookworm aardvark-who-doesn’t-look-anything-like-an-aardvark has long been sharing shout-outs to geek culture and fandom. There are dozens of references and parodies and plots exploring science (both fiction and fact), art, classic literature, movies… Honestly, it’s hard to find a show for younger kids that’s better at appealing to geek parents and sowing all sorts of neat ideas.
Ten things that make it great for geeklets (and their parents):
1. Check out the guest voices: Arthur’s had a bunch of these, several of particularly note to geeks and creative types, and one of the things I think makes them awesome is that more often than not, the visitors are playing themselves, which can introduce parents and kids alike to new faces and ideas. Neil Gaiman has been on the show in an episode encouraging kids to create graphic novels. Other guests have included architect Frank Gehry, kinetic sculpture artist Arthur Ganson, and Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek.
2. The value of reading is a huge underlying message: Arthur and his friends go to the library a lot. They did an entire musical episode which included a song and dance the benefits of a library card and another using The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to illustrate the addictive power of books. Oh, and Arthur’s last name is, in fact, Read.
3. It’s super-meta. The characters have more than once broken the fourth wall to take control of the show, and in one particularly brilliant episode called “The Contest,” they managed to parody not only Arthur itself, but also South Park, Dexter’s Laboratory, and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.
4. Obligatory Star Wars reference made for no reason whatsoever: Arthur’s friend Buster, having gone away for the summer with his dad, appears over Arthur’s shoulder as a robed figure, translucent and sparkly. “Use the Force, Arthur,” he intones – and then he admits he has no idea what it means, but that he “thought it would be funny.”
5. Lucasfilm call-out number two: In an episode about misconceptions regarding the life of his Turkish pen pal, Arthur is sadly misinformed by the comic-book adventures of Illinois Jack and the Caravan of Horrors, complete with a couple brief Raiders of the Lost Ark send-ups.
6. What literary phenomenon keeps the kids of Elwood City stampeding back to the bookstore? That would be the tales of the boy wizard who’s the star of Henry Screever and the Cabbage of Mayhem, and the related Brick of Wonders and Knights of the Bouillabaisse.
7. Arthur and Buster are huge fans of comic-book hero “Bionic Bunny,” who’s a clear nod to Superman, as well as his more sinister and Batman-esque TV spinoff, Dark Bunny. And they pay tribute to comic conventions and cosplay in an episode called “The Secret Origin of Supernova.”
8. Brain: Arthur’s super-smart friend (Real name: Alan) is always there with a detailed scientific explanation and a winning school project at the ready. He also happily loans Arthur his books on spline extrusion and the Copernican universe model.
9. Arthur and his friends have an oft-stated fondness for clearly-cheesy-but-fun-anyway horror and sci-fi action movies like Carpet of Doom and 5000 Explosions and a Supernova.
10. Fleeting, subtle, and genius: There’s an episode in which Arthur’s friend Francine displays a swallow and then a coconut, explaining that the former had been carrying the latter. (She does not specify whether it is an African or European swallow.) Best Monty Python reference in a kids’ show ever.