overthinking the idiot box

February 13, 2006

Smiling Strange: The Adventures of Pete and Pete

by Luke Geddes

A superhero in pajamas and horn-rimmed glasses; 12-year-old Pete, tattooed like a sailor; his similarly redheaded brother, also named Pete; a passive-aggressive school bus driver; the metal plate in mom's head; a mysterious costumed ice cream man; Mrs. Blowtard's hypnotic arm flub; the wailing vocals of "Marmalade Cream". Such unique and beautiful imagery may explain why devoted fans have not forgotten The Adventures of Pete and Pete since it first aired on Nickelodeon in 1993. It certainly left an indelible mark in my mind. With seasons one and two already out on DVD, lifelong fans like myself can give the DVD sets to their parents to explain why they turned out to be such warped individuals.

The resonance stems from the show's truthful approach to childhood. It's not overtly nostalgic like The Wonder Years, nor is it bitter and cynical like Todd Solondz' Welcome to the Dollhouse. Pete and Pete's depiction of childhood is trumped only by Lynda Barry's Marlys comic strips in terms of being accurate, funny and downright revelatory.

When you watch Pete and Pete, you will be transported to a time when a staring contest is a perfectly legitimate way to settle an argument and a family road trip is no less than an Odyssean journey. The recurring "International Adult Conspiracy" recalls those early feelings of that dichotomy between grownups and kids; their ways were incomprehensibly foreign and superfluous, and vice versa. In one of many shockingly true moments, little Pete interrogates Dad, "So you don't like the taste of coffee, but you drink it anyway?" No other TV show has accomplished such a precise portrayal of childhood, except perhaps The Simpsons (when it used to be good). The definition of wacky, Artie The Strongest Man in the World (Toby Huss, AKA "The Wiz" on that episode of Seinfeld) is what every young viewer expects himself to grow up into. It's heartening to think the program had a small hand in forever subverting its viewers' opinions on our sterile, money-obsessed world.

Wellsville is viewed through a child's perceptive and mercurial lens. Mundane events like bus rides and shop class are presented as the epical "today's adventure" they actually can be.
Though in the tradition of the early-90s fad of "quirky" representations of small town America (stemming from seminal series like Northern Exposure and Twin Peaks), in the creation of enigmatic every-town Wellsville, we have a place like no other. The setting combines a 1950s pastiche with 1990s hipsterism. In Wellsville, the drive-in is still where the teenagers hang out on Friday nights and the REM-esque jangling of Polaris will always be heard from Mrs. Chicutti's garage. Wellsville is viewed through a child's perceptive and mercurial lens. Mundane events like bus rides and shop class are presented as the epical "today's adventure" they actually can be.

Pete and Pete seems shockingly aberrant in that it never condescends to hackneyed moral reasoning or black-and-white explanation things unavoidable in today's crop of children's television. Pete and Pete accepts ambiguity, albeit with an exaggerated, very surreal bent. On the commentary track for season one's "Day of the Dot", creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi discuss the reasons why important aspects of the show why both brothers are named Pete, Wellsville's specific location, the actual names of Mom and Dad are left unexplained. "Everything [in TV] seemed so overexplained... the idea was to put some mystery back into kids' life," says McRobb. Director Katherine Dieckmann adds, "those mysteries are part of respecting a kid's POV."

Season two features "Farewell, My Little Viking", possibly the strongest episode of the entire series. In it, Little Pete's personal superhero Artie is run out of town by the International Adult Conspiracy, which is concerned with Artie's unusual lifestyle he lives in porta-potty, is in love with the smell of tire air, views slacks as a form of currency and encourages kids to act like kids. The two-part installment serves as a strikingly clever and surprisingly insightful allegory of a child's transition into adolescence, as well as a showcase for the show's zany humor. If your parents were too cheap for cable of if you're just unfamiliar with Pete and Pete, this may be the place to start.

It should be noted that the show had the coolest rock and roll and celebrity guest stars including: Iggy Pop, Adam West, Michael Stipe, Marshall Crenshaw, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Steve Buscemi (my favorite actor) and even Hunter S. Thompson. And it was all rounded out by a catchy, post-grunge alternative soundtrack of that newly-nostalgic 1990s zeitgeist.

Considering it originally aired on Nickelodeon, The Adventures of Pete and Pete balances quiet subversion and heartfelt schmaltz to a remarkably sophisticated degree. This is children's television too smart for even adult TV. Finally, here I must regretfully note that the third and final season, originally scheduled for February 28th DVD release, has been inexplicably cancelled. However, I can't help but conclude with the most poignant words of Artie, The Strongest Man In The World: PIPE!

Email the author.

Return to Season 2, Episode 10.