Back in “the day,” my sister and I spent the majority of our recreational time sitting in front of the TV. Neither of us were allowed a set in our bedrooms, but we had a nice fat Sony in our playroom over the garage. Weekends, after school, you name it: we were watching the boob tube. We were far from discretionary in our choices: regularly, we'd watch one rerun of Full House, another, and then flip to a separate station to watch the very same Full House rerun we'd watched just an hour earlier. I didn't even like Full House that much. It's just what we did. I have an explicit memory of being in the first grade playground and explicitly reciting a ubiquitous local commercial for some sort of adult education program word-for-word with my friends. I had seen it so often that I'd memorized it without trying.
Listen, we weren't shut-ins or anything. We did our chores and played with the neighborhood kids, who were probably watching just as much crap as we were. We even read a book every once in awhile. But it was a whole hell of a lot of TV; I shudder to think at the volume of crappy commercials, worthless shtick, and general mediocrity that curdled our supple, innocent, developing brains. The point is, thank god for The Adventures of Pete and Pete. In a desert of vapid, lowest-common-denominator programming, Pete and Pete was an oasis; A bizarre, bizarre oasis.
The Adventures of Pete and Pete debuted after Clarissa Explains It All as part of the second Saturday Night Nickelodeon (SNICK) lineup in 1993. It had been preceded by a series of twenty-four popular shorts that had been run on Nickelodeon as bumpers since 1989. Created by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, Pete and Pete followed the titular Petes Wrigley on their trials and tribulations in a small town called “Wellsville.” Sharing the bill with the Petes were Mom, who had a metal plate in her head that could pick up and broadcast radio and satellite signals, Dad, who loved Dad-stuff like his lawn and his car, Ellen, the classic girl next door, Artie, “the strongest man... in the world,” and Petunia, Little Pete's red-headed forearm tattoo.
The show, along with a lot of what Nickelodeon was putting out at the time, was the opposite of everything else that was on TV. Sure, it was quirky, but it was more than that. It's clear from the opening credits, in which “Mom's Plate” gets its own billing, that this show was playing by its own rules. It was downright weird. The show had an unplaceable rhythm and energy that put it at odds with the shows surrounding it; despite all its silliness, it had a sense of urgency and danger. More than anything else, though, Pete and Pete had heart. Its stories and characters, outsized as they were, were honest, relatable, and surprisingly touching: Little Pete's earnest adventures, Big Pete's hormone-fueled angst, and the adults, who (like in real life) were just as bizarre and troubled as the kids. There was love, there was war, there were larger-than-life villains, all in the context of a suburbia that looked and operated (to a degree) like the one in which I found myself growing up. Pete and Pete respected its audience, no matter their age.
The success of Pete and Pete lies, to a large degree, in the details. I could make a thousand-word list of funny little things that make this particular episode, “Time Tunnel,” perfect. Little Pete doesn't just want to do something legendary: he wants to do something so legendary that they immortalize his story with a commemorative floaty pen. “Endless” Mike is the funniest, most perfect nickname for a bully imaginable. All “Kreb” everything. Little Pete's riboflavin binge. How many times as a kid did you read the ingredients on the cereal box and wonder what riboflavin was? It's necessary for time travel! “I didn't say dollar, I said 'doll hair.'”1 Stu, the bus driver, planning to drive his bus to the Arctic Circle, where he's going to tattoo ex-girlfriend Sally's name to his forehead, strap himself to an iceberg, and “drift slowly off to sea.” It's hard not to gush about this stuff.
A show like Pete and Pete might find a home today on a late-night stoner haven like Adult Swim, but on a children's network? It's hard to picture. Luckily for my generation, Nickelodeon in the early 90s essentially was a late-night stoner haven, except that it ran all day and was, ostensibly, for children. The network's programming was always interesting and could approach downright radical, whether it was pushing the envelope of animation with “Nicktoons” (the particularly envelope-pushing Ren & Stimpy followed Pete and Pete in the 1994 SNICK lineup) or taking on important issues on Nick News. Nick's programming was consistently encouraging kids to think for themselves and embrace their own weirdness, and that's a beautiful thing.
The '90s were a great time for this independent-leaning stuff. Dan Fisher, prop master for the show, popped up on an AV Club comment board last year to remind us of that: “In fact, I'm surprised there wasn't more discussion [on a reunion panel of Pete and Pete cast and crew] about the importance of alternative music and indie film to the tone of Pete and Pete. We made that show in the early 90's, when grunge was exploding, and films by Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, etc., were drawing real box office power. So many of us on the crew came from that world -- we knew how to shoot fast, cheap, and interestingly.2” Indeed, to look at Pete and Pete as a product of the nineties' indie film boom makes a whole lot of sense.
Thanks to cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Michael Stipe, and more 3 (Katherine Dieckmann, who worked on the show, was a music video director), one of the most consistent talking points about Pete and Pete is how surprisingly hip it is. Which, it is. I'm sure it will find a place in the hard drives and on the DVD shelves of college students for years – I hope so, anyway. But more importantly, I hope the current generation of kids has a show of their own to shake them up, inspire them, and weird them out. Take it from McRobb: “We were writing for a certain kid that was maybe, um, felt like he was a little weird himself and wasn’t really sure how to express that or if it was okay to express that. And we wanted to find that kid and show him our show and say, ‘It’s okay.'4”
1 I can't say for sure f this is the origin of the ol' doll hair/dollar trick, but I wouldn't be surprised.
3 I don't have the time or inclination to list all of the cameos made in this show, but it's an impossibly cool list. Look it up! Janene Garafalo! Luscious Jackson as the prom band!