This review was co-written by the metal plate in Judge Mac McEntire's 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.
Facts of the Case
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"
• "Day of the Dot"
• "The Nightcrawlers"
• "Range Boy"
• "Tool and Die"
• "Don't Tread on Pete"
• "When Petes Collide"
• "Hard Day's Pete"
The set also features four Adventures of Pete & Pete specials, made a year before the series began:
• "Valentine's Day Massacre"
• "What We Did on Our Summer Vacation"
• "Apocalypse Pete"
• "New Year's Pete"
For a more detailed examination of what makes this series tick, let's take a look at our cast of characters:
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.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm a nice enough guy that I don't mind a trailer that plays when you first put the disc in your machine, even if it can't be skipped with your remote's menu button. But four unskippable trailers? And they're repeated on both discs? That's taking it too far. The offenders are Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, Spongebob Squarepants: The Complete Second Season and The Brady Bunch: Season One. Also, at this point in the game, shouldn't every DVD at least have English subtitles?
Where are these actors today? Why isn't Michael Maronna getting the types of parts that usually go to John Cusack? Why isn't Alison Fanelli getting the parts that usually go to Liv Tyler or Maggie Gyllenhaal? For a while, Danny Tamberelli enjoyed some C-level celebrity status as "that wacky guy" on Nickelodeon shows like All That and Figure It Out, so why isn't he now getting parts that usually go to Seann William Scott or Ashton Kutcher? Who knows, he might actually make them tolerable.
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.
Not guilty, blowhole!
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Scales of Justice
• Four Bonus Pete & Pete Specials
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