This review was written by the metal plate on my head.
“Every night, when you’re sound asleep, something strange happens. Not only do your eyeballs keep moving even though your eyes are closed, but the world keeps moving, too. Somewhere, far away, kids you’ll never meet are climbing trees, riding bikes and milking garter snakes, while you’re fast asleep. Maybe that’s what bugs my brother Pete. While he’s stuck in bed, the world keeps going on, without him. It’s as if millions of kids got a head start in a race, and Pete never had a chance to catch up.”
The early 1990s saw a great deal of creative and experimental programming at cable channel Nickelodeon. The Ren & Stimpy Show led the charge, Doug and Rugrats kicked off their long-running popularity, Clarissa Explains It All aimed for the young girl audience, and no one quite knew what to make of Weinerville. But at 6 p.m. on Sunday nights, the network belonged to two red-headed brothers, their quirky parents, their otherworldly classmates, and an unconventional superhero. Now that a few years have gone by, The Adventures of Pete & Pete is officially a nostalgia item, and its unique brand of weirdness has arrived on DVD.
Pete (Michael C. Maronna, Home Alone) would like to tell you about his brother, Pete (Danny Tamberelli, Igby Goes Down), and their adventures in the town of Wellsville. These adventures involve Dad (Hardy Rawls, D.A.R.Y.L.), who owns the local driving range, Mom (Judy Grafe, Frankenhooker) who has a metal plate in her head, best friend and possible girlfriend Ellen (Alison Fanelli), and Artie the Strongest Man in the World (Toby Huss, Beavis and Butt-Head do America), the town’s resident superhero and Younger Pete’s personal bodyguard. It keeps getting stranger from there.
The Adventures of Pete & Pete is not a kids’ show. Instead, it’s a show about being a kid.
Take a moment to think about that.
It might sound like the two are the same thing, but there are key differences between them. When you’re still growing up and still learning, a lot of the world doesn’t make sense. Rules are constantly forced on kids, sometimes for no readily apparent reason. Adult behavior is often strange, as if secrets are hidden around each corner. Pete and Pete exist in a world filled with mysteries. Adult conspiracies abound, 10-year-olds can grow beards, and bowling balls have minds of their own. But these mysteries are not explored or investigated in any way. Instead, the unknown is accepted as the ordinary. Where did Little Pete’s tattoo come from? How did the bully “Endless Mike” get his nickname? What the heck’s the deal with Artie? None of this is explained. Being kids, our heroes simply accept these mysteries as a part of everyday life.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the episodes on this two-disc set, making up the show’s first season:
• “King of the Road”
It’s vacation time, and no one vacations better than Dad. But when a rival dad challenges his title, it leads to a roadside competition of epic proportions.
• “Day of the Dot”
Strife hits the school’s award-winning marching band. Ellen is consumed with her new position as the band’s “dot,” forcing Big Pete to reevaluate how he feels about her.
• “The Nightcrawlers”
Younger Pete and his friends make a stand against adult tyranny by refusing the most basic of rules: bedtime. Will he disrupt the balance of power, or is Mom one step ahead of him?
• “Range Boy”
What is the secret connection between golfing and bears? Big Pete wants to know, because that’s the only thing that can save him from the embarrassment of having to work at his dad’s driving range after school.
• “Tool and Die”
In a series with many mysteries, this is one of the most mysterious, as Big Pete hopes to rescue Ellen from the frightening unknown that is shop class.
• “Don’t Tread on Pete”
Big Pete has less than 30 minutes to cram for a make-it-or-break-it history test in an episode dealing with leg veins, milk squirting, dodge ball, and more.
• “When Petes Collide”
Brotherly love is put to the test when Dad wants an heir for his prized bowling ball. But there is more to said ball than it seems.
• “Hard Day’s Pete”
Little Pete has no favorite song, until he hears one that blows him away. But with nothing to rely on but his memory, he does the only thing he can do to recreate the song before it fades from his mind. He starts a band.
The set also features four Adventures of Pete & Pete specials, made a year before the series began:
• “Valentine’s Day Massacre”
Nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like accidentally killing a squid in a freak discus-throwing accident. In a twisted tale about bullies, secrets, and slobbering, our heroes help a janitor and a math teacher find love.
• “What We Did on Our Summer Vacation”
This fan-favorite special introduces Mr. Tasty, the world’s most secretive ice cream man. In their attempt to uncover his identity, Big Pete and Ellen end up driving him out of town. Meanwhile, the younger Pete stands up to an evil lifeguard, and Dad makes the find of a lifetime at the beach.
• “Apocalypse Pete”
Look, it’s Steve Buscemi! He plays Ellen’s dad, who ends up in an insane prank war against the Petes’ dad. The ongoing struggle has Little Pete and Dad growing closer together, but it also has Big Pete and Ellen growing apart. What’s a pair of brothers to do?
• “New Year’s Pete”
With the New Year’s right around the corner, Little Pete finds himself in conflict with a crossing guard. He also takes over narration duties from his brother for this one.
For a more detailed examination of what makes this series tick, let’s take a look at our cast of characters:
The older brother is our narrator and our main protagonist. He is often played as one of the more normal characters, but he too has a skewed perspective on life. He takes a purely scientific approach to winning Ellen’s heart in “Day of the Dot.” In “Don’t Tread on Pete,” he spends as much time ruminating on the supernatural powers of his teacher’s leg veins as he does cramming for his test. Michael Maronna narrates each episode with deadly seriousness, so that no matter how ridiculous or absurd the plot, it’s made clear just how high the stakes are for our young heroes.
Much of the series’ famed weirdness comes from the actions of the younger brother. He always seems to have a devious plan in mind, and he can come up with a scheme to get himself out of any predicament. He also gives the show its dark side. He’s got an insult ready for every occasion, calling both adults and bullies names such as “blowhole” and “dillweed.” But despite his slightly festering evil, Pete remains loyal to his brother and his family, and he’s not afraid to stand up for himself or for what he feels is right. It’s a nice balance struck by the writers and by actor Danny Tamberelli. Pete comes across as a kid who’d be fun to hang around with, as long as you don’t cross him.
Mostly played for the usual “Dad” jokes, this father figure is sometimes a buffoon, sometimes overly competitive, and sometimes highly sentimental. But he’s often the source the writers turn to when they want jokes not intended for kids. Take, for example, the subtle Freudian nature of his rivalry with another dad in “King of the Road.” The two men compete to see who can have the larger stack of luggage, or measure success with extending tire pressure gages, or…okay, so maybe it’s not that subtle. But Dad’s various foibles and frustrations show how the series is more than ordinary kids’ fare. Instead of writing for a specific target audience, the creators just tell the story they want to tell. Sometimes that might mean random weirdness, but sometimes it means genuine insights into the characters and how they think.
In any other series, Mom might be considered the boring character. Aside from the notorious plate, which we’ll discuss below, Mom is the normal one here. Her only job is to keep her family together, and to be there for Dad and the boys when things get rough. In “Nightcrawlers,” she starts out as the enemy, but then becomes the voice of reason. She’s the only one using any kind of common sense when everyone else is possessed by the hypnotic power of a sinister bowling ball in “When Petes Collide.” Judy Grafe makes the character genuine, so that when she’s called upon to deliver the episode’s moral, she can do it without making it forced or preachy.
Mom has a metal plate in her head. We never do learn the full story as to why. But still, the plate is important enough to get its own credit during the opening titles. The plate can pick up and somehow broadcast radio signals and police scanner frequencies, and it makes Mom highly vulnerable to lightning. The plate also demonstrates how the show’s creators can make the most of a low budget. There are no special effects or complicated make up jobs required for the plate. Instead, we’re just told that Mom has a plate. With only a few lines of dialogue and an X-ray during the opening, the series achieved one of its signature weirdness for weirdness’ sake elements. Note how in “Nightcrawlers,” which features Mom in a key role, the plate is not discussed at all. And yet we, the audience, know it’s there. Unseen and unmentioned, it still helps the creators bring the bizarre world of Pete & Pete to life.
Big Pete’s best friend and/or girlfriend—depending on which episode you’re watching—is often played as the smart one of the bunch. And smart she is, too. She can calculate the location of a missing ice cream man from hints in photographs, she can build an action figure replica of her father from scratch, and she can use semaphore to pass messages between two feuding brothers. But Ellen can be too much of an overachiever sometimes, to the point of obsession. You’d think that most people would be offended to be told, “You’re a dot,” but Ellen gives it a Zen-like approach. She obsesses over what it truly means to be a dot, to the point where her friendship with Pete is at risk. In “Tool and Die,” there’s a remarkable sequence showing how Ellen’s ambitions in shop class have led to pure madness. Ellen is shown in close-up, with darkness surrounding her face, as she discusses her fascination with a blowtorch. This fades back and forth between shots of the torch’s flame illuminating the shadows. The scene ends with another dark close-up of Ellen hidden behind a welder’s mask, lit only by the torch. Like the finest filmmakers, the creators here have used imagery with minimal dialogue not only to build suspense, but also to depict a character’s state of mind.
What can possibly be said about Artie the Strongest Man in the World? If you’re already familiar with Pete & Pete, then you know Artie. If you’ve never seen the show, then prepare to be freaked out. Artie’s unflatteringly skinny body is poured into equally unflattering red and blue spandex. This, combined with his glasses, slicked back hair, and oddball speech patterns, make him by far the strangest element in an already strange series. You’d think most kids would run screaming from this guy, but Artie, in true superhero fashion, proves to be a loyal pal, always there for his young friends. When he’s not saving the day with his awesome strength, Artie perks up the kids with some upbeat words, or with his manic dancing. Prior to Pete & Pete, Toby Huss was a performance artist, who wowed the creators with his manic energy at an “underground theater.” One gets the feeling that Huss isn’t acting, but instead the director just put him in front of the camera and let him go. But Artie brings more to the series than an otherworldly presence. He adds to the kids’ perspective the creators are shooting for. Evidence dictates that Artie is not Pete’s imaginary friend—as many have speculated—but his role here does fit into the mysterious “kid logic” that the scripts are built around.
As we can see, there are a number of factors that make the series work, almost in spite of itself. In the audio commentaries provided here, the creators outline some of their goals for Pete & Pete, which include themes of “geek empowerment,” kids standing up for their rights, and combining scientific logic with matters of the heart. All these are best seen in the season’s standout episode, “Day of the Dot.” In this world, members of the marching band are the heroes of the school, instead of some sports team. As noted above, Ellen must become a dot. For her, it’s not something insignificant—it’s the most important role she could have. Big Pete views his changing feelings for Ellen in a purely scientific way, comparing the two of them to a hydrogen atom. Meanwhile, Little Pete is stuck on the world’s longest school bus ride. It’s up to him, and him alone, to come up with a scheme to both end the ride and to heal the bus driver’s broken heart. These plotlines end in a satisfying fashion—crowd-pleasing and funny, without getting sappy. It’s strange and silly, but it also has heart.
The creation of the series was just as unusual as the series itself. Pete & Pete was originally a collection of 60-second shorts designed to promote the Nickelodeon network. With no instructions other than ending with the network logo, the creators had free reign to be as weird as they wanted. The shorts gained a cult following, which led to the 30-minute Valentine’s Day special. This proved popular enough for more specials, and, finally, the series. There was never a pilot, or pitch meetings, or test screenings, or any of the usual steps that a series has to take to get on the air. This entire endeavor is the TV equivalent of low-budget independent cinema, created without focus groups, product placement, or interference from studio executives. Instead, it was made by a group of friends armed with nothing but a camera and their dreams. It’s the same inventive “do-or-die” spirit that gave us small-scale fan favorites like Clerks, El Mariachi, or Primer. Only this project was for made for television. Unless the entertainment industry goes through some radical changes in the future, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a series like this again.
Because Pete & Pete‘s first season had a budget of about five bucks, the picture quality is slightly lacking. Greens and reds are bright enough to sting your retinas, but blues and yellows are soft and washed out. Fans, however, will argue that the colors contribute to the overall “look” of the show. There are other flaws, though, such as an orange stripe across the screen at one point, that had me instinctively reaching for my old VHS remote to fiddle with the tracking button. The audio is serviceable, but not exactly DTS quality. Still, all dialogue and music come through loud and clear.
Extras include audio commentaries from co-creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi and director Katherine Dieckmann, on two episodes and one of the specials. These include anecdotes from the set, and other fond reminisces of the series as a whole. But if you’re hoping for an answer to “where did they come up with these crazy ideas,” you won’t find it here. Two of the original 60-second shorts are included. It’s fascinating to see the series in its infancy, and one wishes even more of these could have been added. The final extra is a collection of songs from the band Polaris, who appear in the opening credit sequence and who provided most of the show’s music.
The way the discs are set up, it’s like traveling back through time. You begin watching the first season, with its slower dreamlike pace and rich character development. Then you see the specials, in which the actors are younger, and the plots and humor fly by at rapid fire speeds as creators try to fill each one with as much story as possible. Finally, the shorts are, naturally, even more fast-paced, and the actors look even younger. Seeing the genesis of the series in reverse shows how the creators learned as they went along. They started with almost no experience but a lot of enthusiasm, and ultimately created a weekly series made up of smart, well-told stories, which are also very funny and wonderfully weird.
Pete & Pete is now officially a nostalgia piece, but here’s hoping the people who created it, both in front of the camera and behind, will keep working and give us more great stories wrapped in a surreal setting. Not to mention releasing the remaining seasons (and the rest of the shorts) on DVD.