Some years back, while browsing The Adventures of Pete and Pete fan sites (I obviously had lots of friends in high school), I happened upon one that listed the AIM screennames of several actors who played big roles on the show. I dutifully added the names to my buddy list – here were my true friends! – and waited patiently for the chance to badger them. That chance finally came one afternoon when older Pete’s friend Bill signed on, after months of inactivity. “What if you could be rich forever, but you had to go to the bathroom out your nose? Would you do it?” I asked (conundrums of this sort were Bill’s trademark on the show).
The response was slightly more caustic than I had hoped for: “Listen, punk, if you ever talk to me again I’ll come to your house with a box full of burning hot French fries and jam them into your eyeballs one by one!” Though scarring on a personal level, this exchange has done nothing to diminish my fondness for the series itself.
It’s really a wonder that Pete & Pete ever got on TV in the first place. Probably best described as a cross between Twin Peaks and The Wonder Years the show chronicled the exploits of the Wrigley brothers (both with red hair, both named Pete) and the bizarre cast of characters they encountered in their hometown of Wellsville. Wellsville was a town suffused with surrealism, where incidents like the accidental lamination of pets or the freeze-drying of Cuba as a practical joke were commonplace. Punk rock legend Iggy Pop played a regular character as the father of younger Pete’s friend Nona. A motley collection of other celebrities made cameos during the show’s three-season run as well – LL Cool J (a math teacher), Steve Buscemi (a guidance counselor), and NFL Hall of Famer Art Donovan (himself), to name a few. It also had a fantastic but unconventional soundtrack, populated by indie groups like The Magnetic Fields and The Apples in Stereo.
Beginning in 1989 as a series of shorts, the show was filmed in the northern New Jersey towns of Cranford and South Orange and aired on Nickelodeon as a full-length endeavor for three seasons, from 1993 to 1996. Vigilant viewers could catch reruns until 1999, at which point it was pulled indefinitely. Creators Will McRobb and Chris Vicardi have made a few forays into movies and television since then, most prominently with the unfortunate 2000 film “Snow Day,” but they have failed to launch a commercially successful project since the Wrigley brothers went off the air.
All the show’s quirks help to explain how Pete & Pete has developed a semblance of a cult following in the years since it went off the air – they make for great rewatchability – but it remains to be explained what kids liked so much about this show in the first place. I’m certain I didn’t know quite what I was laughing at in elementary school when, for instance, a bus driver feeling betrayed in the aftermath of Career Day, screams at older Pete, “Carrot top Judas! Thou hast forsaken me!”, or when younger Pete finds Jimmy Hoffa’s wallet while digging a tunnel out of his house.
Ultimately, though, all the historical references and surrealist humor existed within what was a pretty conventional framework. Narratives were driven by all the familiar tropes of adolescent TV: the school bully, the unreasonable teacher, the awkward courtship with the girl next door, etc. It moralized in a very unchallenging way, gradually acquiring a more serious tinge in the second and third seasons as older Pete negotiated the familiar path through high school. Every show ended with gentle guitar and thoughtful narration from older Pete, as he hashed out in very clear terms whatever life lesson it was that the audience was supposed to take from the episode.
When you consider Pete & Pete in these terms, it’s tempting to write it off as potentially original show held back by a tired genre. It’s certainly true that there are constraints imposed by setting and format on the show, and on every show in its genre; after all, your typical childhood in the suburbs doesn’t allow for a great deal of thematic variety, particularly when it’s portrayed only in half-hour intervals.
But all this isn’t to say that Pete and Pete was trite or unoriginal. In my way of thinking, what gives the show its enduring value was its understanding of its limits. The talent of the writers lay in taking simple narrative ideas – there’s little you can do in a format like this that hasn’t already been done – and working from there to make the finished product as distinctive as possible. Very often, episodes of Pete and Pete boiled down simply to battles between good and evil. Evil on the show took a variety of unusual forms. Bullies with supervillian-like characteristics – and names like Paper Cut, Pit Stain, and Endless Mike – harassed the Wrigley brothers on a daily basis. Adults of all stripes – occasionally under the auspices of the “International Adult Conspiracy” – constantly endeavored to crush the spirit of youth in one way or another.
In other cases, the Petes dealt with problems like boring family vacations or impossible tests. With the help of Artie, their own personal super hero, Pete and Pete engaged in compelling struggles which, without the inventiveness of the show’s writers, would have been decidedly tedious.
Certainly, the surreal elements of the show have always held it back from universal acclaim – after all, your average Step by Step fan wasn’t going to laugh at jokes about bowling balls with supernatural powers or a bear almost getting elected to the House of Representatives. But it was the happy marriage between the surreal and the quotidian that made Pete and Pete a classic. The humor of the show was so effective because of its juxtaposition with otherwise familiar situations. The narrative, meanwhile, was checked from becoming cloying and sappy by the subversive elements of the show. As a result, kids could enjoy and relate to the show’s characters without feeling self-conscious or suspicious. The characters themselves were exceptionally well-drawn – the sentimental, impressionable older Pete and the courageous, recalcitrant younger Pete – and despite the subversive elements, the show was fundamentally good-hearted.
It’s little wonder, then, that this show has proved so endearing for its select following of fans. Seasons one and two have been released on DVD, while the petition to get season three released is twenty-five hundred strong. I can make a variety of considered arguments these days as to why The Adventures of Pete and Pete is one of the great children’s TV shows of all time. When I watched it as a kid, of course, this wasn’t the case, but I loved it probably for little else than that I wished my life was more like the one presented in the show, that I could do things like ride my bike across four states, dig a tunnel out of my house, or accidentally topple the Asian bond market. When you’re talking about a children’s TV show, though, there are few criteria more revealing than that.