ArthursFountainAbbeycoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family:  No
2014, 56 min., Color
Not rated (would be G)
PBS Kids
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (full screen)
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: C

Arthur will probably never catch its PBS cousin Sesame Street, which, at 44 seasons, is the longest running children’s show in America. But at 18 seasons it still holds the distinction of being the longest running animated children’s show in America.

Based on the books by Marc Brown, the series star is Arthur Read (the last name is deliberate, since the series encourages reading), an eight-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark who lives in a world of animals that walk, talk, dress, and face the same problems as their human counterparts. He’s a responsible kid who comes from a good family, and the series shifts back and forth between friends and family life with parents David (a chef/caterer) and Jane (an accountant who also works at home), and Arthur’s two younger sisters—the often annoying preschooler D.W. (short for Dora Winifred) and the infant Kate.

Arthur is a third-grade student at Lakewood Elementary, a likable brainy kid who isn’t marginalized the way some studious or brilliant kids are, and is made more “average” here because one of his friends is called “Brain.” He’s also friends with an exuberant rabbit named Buster and a not-so-bright burly dog named Binky. The emphasis is often on problem-solving, and reading sometimes provides a means of getting to that end. But Arthur is also good about addressing serious issues in a soft-but-firm way, or crafting episodes that are rooted in the headlines and popular culture.

Maybe that’s why the show has become popular with young adults who connect now via nostalgia but also those satirical episodes. Call it a kinder, gentler version of The Simpsons, because the writers have taken to incorporating parodies of movies and other TV shows, including the title episode on this four-episode DVD, “Fountain Abbey.”  

ArthursFountainAbbeyscreenDownton Abbey is popular with families that have older children, but everyone who loves that show can connect with this episode as well, as can younger children who have no idea what Downton Abbey is all about. And in typical Arthur fashion, there are live-action segments to help drive the lesson home and help young viewers further connect with the topic. In this episode, the humility-challenged rich girl Muffy (whose animal type is hard to discern) sees a photo of her great-great grandmother in front of Downton Abbey and concludes that she was royalty, then gets overly excited thinking that SHE’S royalty too. But she’s brought down to Earth when she learns that her ancestor was a common maid, and is kicked while she’s down when Binky discovers a photo of his ancestor was the lord of that same manor. Only after Muffy and her friends read her ancestor’s diary (and we get an Arthur cast re-enactment imagined) does she feel better about how important that woman was to Downton Abbey and what an interesting and fulfilling life she led. And then we get students talking about a classroom project on ancestry that can get teachers and students thinking about what they can do.

The other episodes on this disc are “Arthur Calls It,” which finds Arthur second-guessing himself after he calls Buster out during a baseball game. Will he succumb to peer pressure, or stick with what he believes is right?; “Whip. Mix. Blend.,” a blended-family tale that finds one child trying to find common ground with twins from the “other side”; and “Staycation,” in which Arthur babysits so his parents can just enjoy a peaceful day in their own backyard . . . and what can go wrong, does.

Downton Abbey: Season 5 was released this past week, and Arthur’s Fountain Abbey makes for a great alternative for families who have smaller children, or an “appetizer” for the main meal for families who are big Downton Abbey fans.