Opinion Making ‘Arthur’ grow up was a betrayal

(Video: Illustration by Chris Rukan/The Washington Post; Photos by AP and iStock)

Arthur got glasses, and suddenly the trees had leaves.

My memory of a cartoon animal’s memory of the wonderful kind of day when he could finally see the world is vivid — so vivid that when I put on my own first pair of frames sophomore year of college and looked to the sky, my 20-year-old mind went to the 8-year-old aardvark.

Now, however, Arthur is all grown up. PBS’s sendoff of his namesake show after a quarter-century of seasons unexpectedly age-accelerates its characters two decades or so. It’s a move undoubtedly designed to offer closure to fans from preschooler to professional. But maybe closure is exactly what we didn’t need.

To recap, for those too busy living adult life to dip back into the old days for the finale of the longest-running animated children’s series in history: The (non-)boy the New York Times dubbed “the world’s most popular student aardvark” has apparently become a fledgling graphic novelist with an even less fledged goatee. His sister, the perennial pest D.W., has become … a cop? Buster the bunny is a drably dressed teacher; self-proclaimed tough guy and secret softie Binky Barnes the bulldog is a journalist.

None of this feels wrong enough in the details that fans could claim character inconsistency or any other storytelling faux pas. After all, Arthur and the gang were hardly paragons of complexity. They weren’t supposed to be. They were supposed to be kids, just furrier and with funny-shaped ears, tasked only with the generic pre-tween responsibility to work and play and get along with each other.

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The whole point was for these little creatures to be full of possibility: They could become anything. But with the finale, this open door is closed. This is where our last glimpse of “Arthur” feels a bit like a betrayal.

“Arthur” admirers who cried out against the cancellation of a program most of them hadn’t watched since before the iPod was invented probably weren’t upset that their favorite insectivore was getting yanked off the air without a proper conclusion. More likely, they were upset that the story was getting yanked off the air, period — because they had sort of assumed, without thinking, that it would never conclude.

They had hoped “Arthur” would exist forever, as a reminder that the childhood it represents exists forever, too, even when we’ve left it behind. What the powers that dictate the fates of 2D television stars might not have realized is that Arthur could have existed forever, for free, if only they’d let him.

Author A.A. Milne ends “The House at Pooh Corner” with a farewell party for Christopher Robin. The boy is leaving the Hundred Acre Wood, because back in the realm of reality, he must start his studies. “I’m not going to do Nothing any more,” he tells Winnie-the-Pooh. “They don’t let you.” But there’s a heartbreaking, heartwarming catch: “Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

The mastery here lies in making our world both time-bound and timeless. Of course we have to grow up in real time and real space, but the fantastic places we explored don’t have to obey the laws of physics. We shouldn’t want them to. As long as we’re reassured there’s still an Elwood City or a Hundred Acre Wood or a Sesame Street, preserved and pristine and just the way we remembered them, we can revisit them in our minds at those moments when we’re fed up with being grown-ups. We can imagine them exactly the same or exactly as different as we want them to be. And even when we don’t want to revisit them, we can take comfort just knowing they’re there.

We can’t do that if these places — and the people, or bears, bunnies and aardvarks, who occupy them — grow up, too. Now Arthur has to worry about publishing deadlines, and D.W.’s nemesis is no longer spinach but parking violations.

One of “Arthur’s” writers, Kathy Waugh, said on the “Finding D.W.” podcast covering the “Arthur” series that she believed PBS had made a mistake. “To me it just felt evergreen, like it was never going to end. But it did end.”

The thing is, it didn’t have to end — even once it was over. Arthur could also have always been playing.