'Arthur' Says Goodbye to Francine's Bubbe in its Final Season – Kveller
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‘Arthur’ Says Goodbye to Francine’s Bubbe in its Final Season

via PBS Kids

I’ve never stopped being an avid fan of the PBS series “Arthur,” which I started watching in kindergarten and then had the joy of introducing to my own child, because it spanned a generation. 

The 25th and final season of “Arthur” was just released with four final episodes, which I watched with an emotional, bittersweet feeling deep in my heart. These four episodes address a lot (even the 20+ year mystery of D.W.’s missing snowball!). The season also addressed a deep topic for a children’s show: the death of Francine’s Jewish grandmother, known simply as Bubbe. The approach the episode took to addressing this sad moment, however, leaves me thinking about a bigger conversation around Jewish characters being used merely as flavor in the stories of their non-Jewish counterparts. 

In the episode, called “Listen Up,” Francine has just gotten to Muffy’s house when her mom calls and asks her to come home because she has news. The news, it turns out, is that Bubbe has passed. The scene shifts to her friends at the Sugar Bowl, talking glumly about how Francine is at Bubbe’s funeral in Florida, and how fond they were of Bubbe. 

But then the show shifts to focus on Muffy’s journey of learning about empathy and listening in order to help your friends when they are grieving. The episode revolves around Muffy (naturally) and her failure to see outside herself and be the friend Francine needs, ultimately learning these important life skills. 

Look, learning empathy is an important topic in general. But I have mixed feelings about the whole episode.

On one hand, I’m a little disappointed that Bubbe’s death was merely a plot device to introduce this moral. We’ve gotten just a few Jewish episodes over the 25 years of the series, and those few have been pretty great. (For example, the awesome Halloween episode that had a whole plot line around the Jewish folklore of the golem!) 

Bubbe herself shows up in the phenomenal episode “Is That Kosher?” in which Francine takes on fasting for Yom Kippur to prove to her older sister Catherine that she can do it. As the day wears on, Francine finds it harder and harder to keep fasting. To distract herself, she goes to see her friends at Arthur’s pizza party — and she ends up eating pizza (oops!). On her walk home, she is full of Jewish guilt, imagining her grandmother being completely disappointed in her. In reality, she gets home to find Bubbe sitting at the table, eating. 

The interaction is heartwarming:  

Francine: Bubbe, what are you doing?!

Bubbe: What does it look like I’m doing, I’m having a sandwich. It’s very dry, though. Your mother’s got something against mayonnaise?

Francine: But you’re breaking the rules!

Bubbe: No, I’m not. The Torah forbids us to fast if it hurts our health. And sweetheart, look at Bubbe’s body, it’s a lemon.

Francine: [glumly] I wish I had an excuse. 

Bubbe: Let me guess, you ate some of Arthur’s pizza, right?

Francine: It’s that obvious?

Bubbe: Bubbes know these things. Plus, there’s a mushroom on your shirt. 

Francine: Aw, I’m a failure!

Bubbe: You’re not a failure! Do you know why we Jews celebrate Yom Kippur?

Francine: It’s when we ask for forgiveness for all the mistakes we’ve made. 

Bubbe: So. What are you, Frankele — perfect??

(Bonus fact: Joan Rivers lent her iconic voice to Bubbe in this episode — a shidduch made in heaven!)

The episode itself is extremely well done, perhaps the most heartwarming and wholesome portrayal of Jewish life I’ve ever seen, especially in a kid’s show.

“Listen Up,” however, is in stark contrast. Apart from mentioning Bubbe a few times, it fails to establish any kind of authentic connection to Bubbe’s or Francine’s Jewish identity, and Francine’s grief is a subplot. It feels a little cheap. 

I do greatly appreciate that even in its final hours, the show continues to broach difficult topics that are deeply relevant to kids, in a wholesome and approachable way. This topic seems particularly important given how many children have lost grandparents (or know someone who lost a grandparent) during the pandemic. Still, it would have been nice to see some emphasis on how a grieving child can cope as well — not just her friends — and a glimpse into some of Judaism’s rich traditions surrounding death. 

“Listen Up” reminded me of a recurring dynamic between Muffy and Francine: Back in the Christmas special (“Arthur’s Perfect Christmas,” 2000), Muffy is throwing a ridiculously extravagant, over-the-top Christmas party that she expects Francine to attend. This is despite the fact that, numerous times, Francine has told her she can’t go because she will be celebrating Hanukkah with her family. Muffy is miffed; she doesn’t think Hanukkah is a big deal — definitely not as important as Christmas! (Did you pick up on the fact that Muffy is a WASP born into wealth?) However, the episode leans into this conflict, with Muffy and her family ultimately visiting Francine’s house and celebrating Hanukkah with them, learning all about it (though, of course, they bring Francine’s Jewish family a giant ham as a host gift, which her dad accepts with polite awkwardness). It was really cool to see this conflict resolved in a way that also taught viewers about Hanukkah and how it’s special. 

“Listen Up” had the opportunity to do this while also maintaining the integrity of the lesson, but it fell flat. (I even scanned the background of Francine’s apartment, noticing that there were a couple mirrors — none of which were covered, as per Jewish tradition while sitting shiva for a loved one. So many missed opportunities!) 

Not every Jew sits shiva to mourn, but an episode about someone’s grandmother dying shouldn’t be focused on the friend who struggles to appreciate your culture and how your tragedy helped her learn something. Jewish people aren’t plot devices to their white Christian counterparts. Francine and her Bubbe both deserve better. 

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