In 1992, a recently reunited folk band from southeastern Finland, singing in a dialect with maybe 35,000 native speakers, released their fourth album, Seleniko. Six years later, a children’s show produced in Boston featured one of their songs as an addictive pop hit from an equally mysterious music group. (This sounds like the start of a Thomas Friedman column, and for this I am truly sorry.) Varttina’s song about a young woman having a sexual awakening in spite of/to spite her provincial surroundings is perhaps an odd choice to be the soundtrack for an episode of Arthur. If I ever get hired by some Internet periodical I intend to use my bully pulpit to get to the bottom of whose idea it was to pull “Matalii ja mustii,” because whoever chose it did flawless work.
We never do find out in the course of the episode what the name of the song in the Arthur universe is: Francine and Arthur alternately suggest “Goodbye, Vasternorrland” and “Snowy Snowy, Slushy Slushy” as possibilities, but how should they know? The untranslatable song with a catchy chorus is, in retrospect, emblematic of the childlike mystery that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Apps exist to identify the songs you can’t name. The “ui ui ui” of “Matalii ja mustii” wouldn’t show up on a Google search for “a-wheel-wheel-wheel,” which is definitely what I heard as a kid, but goodness knows just about any song can be found with a simple lyrics search. In 1998, that gnawing feeling that you’ll never find out who sings that hit song was still potent, and it’s the kind of childhood that Arthur at its best was able to portray. The world of the show was never purely analog, but then again, computer games and after-school television programs are the high point of screen time for Arthur and his friends during this era. The frustration the kids feel when a soccer ball knocks out their portable radio and interrupts the DJ just before he can say the title of the song is the kind of frustration people have in Richard Linklater movies; in other words, it belongs to an unthinkably distant past that somehow you were a part of yourself.
The third season of Arthur is probably the best overall season of the show, as one gets the feeling that the writers began to hit their stride at this point. (My knowledge of the show peters out after season 14 or so, which is admittedly several seasons too late for someone as old as I am.) The first season is a hodgepodge of Arthur book adaptations—Kate’s birth in S1E11, adopting Pal in S1E8, Arthur’s assimilating to Mr. Ratburn when he was a “new teacher” in S1E2, etc. The second season still relies on a series of book adaptations—D.W.’s picky eating in S2E3 comes to mind—but the goofy wonder of Arthur starts to come to the forefront in bits and pieces: Binky’s surprising intuition about the work of Piet Mondrian in S2E2, the brilliant arrival of Crazy Bus across the two halves of S2E6 (it’s the B-plot of “Buster Baxter, Cat Saver” before becoming the well-deserved A-plot of “Play It Again, D.W.”), and S2E19, whose back half is, by my reckoning, the first example of the Arthurian trope of “finding an object and imagining its purpose.” That plot meets its full potential head-on in S4E9, in which Elias Howe meets his true destiny as a supervillain.
That goofy wonder Arthur starts to indulge in is a willingness to fool around with alternate possibilities, usually through imagination. Just as the alternate reality of Don Draper is realized to a small extent in “The Jet Set,” Arthur also started to show that willingness to get away from a straight-arrow plot. Characters in Arthur are always imagining something or other, whether it’s as simple as D.W.’s pun on “fire drill” or the strange happenings on Planet Shmelafin, but those tended to be smaller in scale in the early goings. Nor are these necessarily treated as purely humorous moments. Just those two examples are just as much about D.W. thinks about a “fire drill,” but her misunderstanding about what those words mean from the first comes to inform her deep-seated fear of the bad things that could happen if there actually were a fire at school or at home. Arthur’s Planet Shmelafin, expanding as it does, is a marker of his lack of confidence on a homework assignment. What began as the story of how he got his beloved dog turns into a Wachowskis movie because he’s afraid that his own experience is too boring to share.
From the second season on, whole plots come to take shape in the imaginations of the characters. In Season 2, Arthur and the Brain give full voice to their anxieties about a crossing guard who “threatens” to make them pay a ten dollar toll every time they cross the street, and although that crossing guard is just a practical joker, the episode is almost entirely about a wicked man and the fantasies that Arthur and Brain come up with which showcase that wickedness. D.W. has a dream featuring “the Saurus,” who helps her understand that calling people names can be damaging. The “James Hound” movie that Arthur and his friends make is the focus of another episode, but as much of that episode is about how Arthur imagines it looking as it is about the gang making do with their own special effects and ten-cent budget.
Not all of “Binky Rules/Meet Binky” happens in Buster or Fern or Arthur’s minds, but significant cross-sections necessary to build the plot do. I’ve always enjoyed episodes of television shows where main characters take a back seat so the supporting cast can rise to the fore. To bring back Mad Men, seeing Paul Kinsey pop up in Harry Crane’s life as a Hare Krishna in “Christmas Waltz” almost two seasons after the former character was written off the show was a highlight for me. The best episodes of Mad Men are about Don, Peggy, or both. On the other hand, there’s a pleasant irony that the high point of Arthur is an episode with Binky’s name on it where Buster and Fern run half of the plot.
The great reveals of their work are displayed in sequences direct from their imagination, by now an easy transition for the show to work from. Fern, who predicts what my father predicted upon watching the episode for the first time, shows us the inside of her mind where a rival soccer team bent on disqualifying Binky from participating on his team graffities the school with his name. Buster, whose conclusions are grandiose in virtually any scenario, does not disappoint. “Binky,” he begins, pausing for effect, “has an evil twin!” Said evil twin is seen wandering around the grounds, spraypainting, and so on.
“Binky Rules/Meet Binky” also does something which Arthur hadn’t built on too frequently before: the show will always be episodic in nature, but every now and then some incident from past episodes will be built on and enrich the “lore” of Elwood City. (D.W.’s taming of the Tibble twins via story in S3E2 is probably the shining example of the show’s ability to live in the characters’ imagination and reference its own past simultaneously, and happily it works as a sort of thematic prologue for the Binky double-feature.) In the second half of S1E6. Arthur is accused (thus the title, “Arthur Accused!”) of stealing the money he had been collecting for a fundraiser. Buster manages to prove, by dramatically breaking open some brownies at the denouement, that Arthur did deliver the money he was supposed to have delivered. It turns out that Mrs. McGrady, the lunch lady, had absentmindedly baked the quarters into the brownies. In the second half of S2E15, “Fern’s Slumber Party,” we’re introduced to the more impressive investigative chops of Fern, who takes more inspiration from Sherlock Holmes (and tacitly from Agatha Christie) than Sam Spade. Even an age-appropriate detective like Encyclopedia Brown is insufficient for Fern, who dismisses him as “an amateur, really.” Francine conveniently loses a bracelet midway through a stultifying slumber party organized by Fern’s extrovert mother; by using her keen powers of observation, Fern manages to hold the attention of the room and solve the mystery at the same time.
Back to our episode. When the titular legend “Binky Rules” begins to appear on the sides of the school, Binky is flummoxed. This particular distraction is getting in the way of his tryout for a local soccer team, and occurring concurrently with the wildly catchy single of mysterious origins. Binky, desperate to find out who is marking up the school with his name, asks for help. Arthur and the boys, remembering the quarters, nominate Buster to solve the mystery. Francine and the girls, remembering the bracelet, nominate Fern. (This leads to the episode’s one-liner with the longest legs: Brain quips that “Nancy Drew got criminals to confess by wearing attractive pastels.”) Binky quickly suggests that Buster and Fern team up, which they reluctantly assent to even though neither one respects the other’s methods.
The investigation moves with fits and starts through more graffiti, the presence of the single, and a five minute stretch where Buster forgets how language works. Observe:
Buster: Brain, you know your goulash. Slobber a bibful, or Binky’s gonna clutch the gummy.
Brain: If you want to know tomorrow’s menu, it’s posted by the cafeteria.
Buster: Hey, Gopherball! Whaddaya know about the shenanigag on Binky?
Muffy: Just when I thought you couldn’t possibly get any stranger…
Buster: [thoughtfully] Looks like Binky’s taking a pancake fall.
It’s all enjoyable enough, but Buster’s fancy and Fern’s logic both fail in the end. The unnamed song turns out to be a culprit with a suspiciously coincidental name. “Binky Rules” is a statement not about the giant third-grader with hopes for himself on the pitch, but about the band with the hooky single and no comprehensible lyrics. A guy from the radio station has instructed a team to drum up some interest in Binky by putting up esoteric legends around town, notes that they “went a little too far,” and they come around to scrub the graffiti off the school walls while the DJ passes out CDs. It’s Buster and Fern who make the discovery that Binky is a band, and in the spirit of a warmhearted children’s television program, the two of them crack the case together and participate in dancing to the inordinately catchy song next to one another.
The second half of this episode isn’t quite as fun as the first, partly because Buster has adopted contemporary speech again and partly because Arthur’s a little too Charlie Brown to be genuinely enjoyable here. Everyone in town has fairly lost their minds about the prospect of Binky coming to Elwood City for a concert, one where their manager claims a major announcement about the band will be made. In much the same way that Arthur thinks he’ll never actually find out what the name of the Binky song is without hearing it on the radio, the kids are all convinced that they’ll never find out what the announcement is without having been at the concert themselves. Arthur’s friends get in line early enough to get seats where they’ll actually be able to see the band perform. Arthur, held back by D.W.’s indecision about which shoes to buy—D.W. is largely immune to the Binky craze, proving that she is a free thinker and a future main character on Twitter—is greeted by a cow mooing in his face at the end of the line and is forced to tell his friends that his seat is “739XXX.” Buster is as sympathetic as he knows how to be: “Do you want a pair of binoculars?”
The kids are all enamored with the idea of meeting Binky even more than they seem driven to see them in concert; long before the word “parasocial” had entered everyday usage, these third-graders fantasize about getting their special run-in with the group. They’re learned enough in the ways of the world to know that their pop idols aren’t going to be interested in them. They’re just kids, and Binky is made up of adults. Their hopes rest on their parents’ livelihoods, and although the Lakewood kids come from across the class spectrum, their dreams still lead them to the same glorious result. The children get to profess their adoration, and the band gets to luxuriate in that glow. Arthur’s first instinct is that his mom, an accountant, will discover outstanding taxes that will “scare them back to Finland,” although he forgets that his dad, a caterer, has a better in with “Binky catering” than his friends’ parents might with “Binky interview” or “Binky garbage.”
We can skip the middle of the episode during which Arthur agonizes about whether he should do the right thing or not. Does he want to have this glorious meeting with Binky (thanks to his dad’s work) on his own, boldly imagining that the band will fall for him as hard as he’s fallen for them? Or does he want to invite his friends, who have done their best to alleviate Arthur’s 739XXX-themed struggles. The outcome is predetermined. To be honest, I bring this up because one of Arthur’s fantasies, which dominate “Meet Binky” even more than Buster and Fern’s dominate “Binky Rules,” includes a choice phrase I’ve been incorporating into my shopping ever since. Sure that the presence of a “bunch of kids” would make Binky disinterested in him, he predicts that the band’s manager will give the kids bags of “Binky frozen vegetables” as a kind of parting gift. The line reading on “Here’s some Binky frozen vegetables,” by now using the band’s name as an adjective at the apex of its humor value, has made me laugh every time I think about it for fifteen years running.
The twist ending of this double episode is that, just like Buster’s evil twin and Fern’s rival soccer team, Binky doesn’t exist, exactly. The announcement being saved for the Elwood City concert is that the band is actually made up of holograms with programmed musical roles attached to them. The reveal is at first actively uncomfortable for Arthur, who runs up to one of the singers and tries to shake a hand before finding that there is no hand to shake. It only becomes more awkward for the Sugar Bowl set later on as they compare notes in their seats before the start of the show. Arthur is relieved that he didn’t betray his friends for a band that didn’t exist, but the general mood among his friends is glum at best. The fantastic Finns were fabricated, and these elementary schoolers act not like they’ve been given special information ahead of time, or like they’re about to finally experience the concert they’ve obsessed over since the moment they heard of it. It’s an incredibly adult moment for the group. Francine even drops a cynical take that is much older than her: “Sometimes it’s just better not to know anything about celebrities.” (If this were a show on a different network, it would not be hard to imagine Brain saying something about Roman Polanski in this moment.) They all so desperately wanted Binky to be real, to be real enough to confirm back to them that they too are special in their own way. The echoes of Arthur’s imagined Binky shouting COME LUGE WITH US! still rings in his ears. But looking at Binky, once they know that the group is just so much computer programming, the magic is gone. The relationship they imagined sharing is impossible, and the one-sided relationship that Arthur and Buster and Francine had with Binky is even more one-sided than it was before.
The second half of this episode spotlights a fear that has only grown stronger in the years since this episode was released. What if the thing you’ve devoted yourself to ended up being someone else’s make-believe? In the years before the Internet became the world, this is more of an existential question, albeit something of a hackneyed one. We may humorously stereotype as “What if my dad, who tore his knee up as the star running back on his high school team, is just pushing me to play football because he wants to feel that thrill again?” or “What if my husband wants me to stay at home because he has a Leave It to Beaver fetish?” Since the rise of the Internet, which cannot shake your hand back any more than Kyra (the “KY” of “BINKY”) could shake Arthur’s, that question has become much knottier. They are tighter knots, for one thing, resistant even to cutting through them, and they are multiplicitous in ways that I don’t think even the adults in 1998 really could have accounted for, much less the kids of Arthur’s age watching the show. Even the normies are chasing ghosts every few minutes as they refresh their feeds, and maybe that’s closest to Arthur’s desperate attempt to get closer to a band that cannot get closer to him in return. Perhaps Binky works, twenty-five years later, as a kind of metaphor for crypto. Your favorite fake currency never really exists either even if people can get “rich” on it just as people can hear Binky’s one song over and over again.
It’s not that the song which so captivated Arthur and Francine during recess, or the way its life intertwined with Binky’s, wasn’t real. The enthusiasm mattered, and the excitement was genuine. There was a reality in it, even a truth, but neither the reality nor the truth really mattered to Arthur and his friends by the end of the episode. The concert is bound to be a hollow experience for them, something like ninety minutes of squinting to uncover an optical illusion. Would they leave early, too disenchanted or bored or upset to stay? “I’d rather have real friends than a see-through group,” Arthur tells the rest, and it’s a nice thought. It’s also a statement of values even more than just saying something about valuing friendship. The real is more important than the falsified, Arthur says. The world of our characters’ imagination must necessarily pale or devalue itself in comparison to the lived realities of those characters. In this way, a show that is more than happy to stick its head in the clouds and goof off stays fundamentally rooted, even if that rootedness is a surprisingly dour ending for such a fun episode.