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Frank: "What do you want on your tombstones?"
When you're a kid, life is filled with mysteries. What's inside that old house down at the end of the street? What do school bus drivers do while you're in class all day? Is there really an adult conspiracy out to make kids miserable with all their unfair rules? The Adventures of Pete & Pete seeks to solve these mysteries, only from a kid's point of view. Rather than carefully explain to viewers the perfectly logical explanations behind these little unknowns, our heroes find their own explanations. In their minds, daylight savings means a chance to go back in time and relive an hour. An awkward pause between father and son is actually a dangerous void that can be confronted with the appropriate preparation. And the kids who smash pumpkins on Halloween have much more sinister plans.
In other words, by taking all the little unimportant things in life and turning them into big important things, Pete & Pete offers a skewed perspective on life, yet one that is also strangely accurate.
Facts of the Case
Pete (Michael Marrona, Slackers) and his brother Pete (Danny Tamberelli, Igby Goes Down) go about their daily lives in the perpetual autumn of their hometown, Wellsville. Dad (Hardy Rawls, Munchies) loves the simple pleasures of life, such as his yard and his annual fishing trips. Mom (Judy Grafe, Frankenhooker) has a metal plate in her head, helpful for picking up radio frequencies and lightning strikes. Best friend Ellen (Alison Fanelli) is too smart for her own good sometimes, and may or may not be a possible girlfriend for the older Pete. And let's not forget the local superhero, Artie the Strongest Man in the World (Toby Huss, Carnivale), who's always on hand to save the day and act totally insane.
A strange man in a striped shirt just left this episode list on my front lawn:
• "Grounded for Life"
• "Field of Pete"
• "The Call"
• "The Big Quiet"
• "Time Tunnel"
• "Inspector 34"
• "On Golden Pete"
• "Farewell, My Little Viking" Parts 1 and 2
• "Yellow Fever"
• "Sick Day"
For our examination of just what makes this unique series tick, let's take a close-up look at one episode and see how it represents the show as a whole. "The Call," appears to me to have all the elements in it that make Pete & Pete great.
Have you ever walked past a ringing pay phone? Ever wondered who's on the other end, or what would happen if you picked it up? This episode takes that simple idea and turns it into something huge. In Wellsville, a phone on the outskirts of town has been ringing non-stop for over 30 years. At first, no one wanted to answer it out of embarrassment, but as years went by, a growing fear about the phone started to creep through town. Big Pete speculates that the phone would steal the soul of anyone who answers it. Now, an especially brutal heat wave sends the phone's ringing throughout all of town, so residents can hear it wherever they go. Our heroes try to cope with the noise while madness and hysteria occurs throughout town.
I've chosen this episode to explore in detail, because it not only showcases each character in her or her element, but it also incorporates many of the show's overall themes. Big Pete narrates each episode, treating the most ludicrous situations with seriousness, so that no matter how crazy events are on the screen, we the audience know that it matters for our characters. In this episode, he volunteers to help Ellen at a ringing phone crisis center. This puts him in the center of all the action, which allows him to observe all the other parts of the story. Ellen is here, too, as an example of her always willing to do the right thing, and using her braininess to help others and make a difference.
Meanwhile, little Pete, fed up with the sound of the ringing, decides to take action and finally answer the phone. With the help of superhero Artie and Frank the crossing guard, Pete is off on an epic cross-town journey, with various deadly obstacles standing in his way. One ongoing theme of the series is "kid empowerment," and the younger Pete's quest brings that to the surface in this episode. While everyone else complains about the phone, little Pete, a kid, is the only one to actually do something to solve the problem. During his journey, there's a lengthy action sequence where little Pete must cross a street without stepping on the smoldering hot pavement. This is another theme of the show, taking something ordinary we all remember from childhood and turning it into something larger than life.
Meanwhile, at home, the constant ringing reacts with the metal plate in Mom's head, so Dad, always handy around the house, rigs other appliances to go off whenever the family receives a call. So, instead of a ringing phone, lights might come on, or the oven might shoot up flames. Dad is often played for the usual "sitcom dad" jokes, and his antics here are no exception, with various slapstick mishaps occurring whenever a phone is used. Hardy Rawls plays the character with such good natured earnestness, though, that he's enjoyable to watch, even during his hokiest moments. Mom's metal plate is one of the oddball elements of the series most fondly remembered by fans, and it too has a role to play in this episode. But, smartly, the creators have not turned Mom into a one-joke character. The episode concludes with a sweet moment in which Mom faces her past, and expresses her love for her family. There's more than just a metal plate here, there's a real, well-rounded character. Perhaps that's the reason why Mom and Mom's plate get separate credits during the opening, because Mom is her own character, plate or no.
Each episode could get a similarly detailed treatment here. Themes such as freedom, striving for perfection, heroism, romance, growing older, parent-child relations, and more are all taken on over the course of this season. But for the themes and character development, the show is still a lot of fun to watch. There's one key difference between this series and the last—the scripts have more jokes, as opposed to the slow-paced dreamlike feel of the first season. The series never loses its bizarre feel to become another ordinary sitcom, but one-liners and pop culture references are now a part of every script. The good news is that this change does not overwhelm the series, and it does make it a little more accessible to newcomers.
The series had gained some popularity—or at least notoriety—by this time, and had attracted a number of guest stars. Aside from the above-mentioned Buscemi, there's Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers) as a demented mail carrier, Janeane Garofalo (Mystery Men), and LL Cool J (S.W.A.T.) as teachers, and rocker Iggy Pop (Cry-Baby) as a cardigan-wearing suburban neighbor.
Picture quality on this two-disc set is a remarkable improvement over the season one set. Instead of the washed-out, mismatched colors seen there, the colors this time are bright and vibrant, with no defects seen. Audio is good, but not as powerful as other DVDs on shelves.
The Adventures of Pete & Pete originally began as a series of 60-second promos for Nickelodeon. It then graduated to a few half-hour specials, and then got picked up as a series. Another collection of shorts are included this time around, which reveal some back story about Artie and Ellen, as well as explorations of what it's like to have x-ray vision and to endure the worst summer job ever. Another half-hour special is included as well, "Space, Geeks, and Johnny Unitas," in which big Pete and Ellen search for existence of alien life. This one must have been filmed close to the start of the first season, as the actors don't look much younger here than they did there. It's also one of the few times that the series takes a full leap into fantasy/science fiction territory, instead of just hinting at it. As such, the special isn't quite up to the same quality as the actual series, but it still has its fun moments. Rounding out the extras are four commentary tracks in which Marrona, Tamberelli, and Huss join producers, directors and writers to reminisce about the series. The tracks are very funny, with plenty of behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but still no answer to the big question: "How did they think up all this crazy stuff?"
The Adventures of Pete & Pete has big laughs and weirdness galore, but it's also subversively smart, with moving stories, and genuine character development. It's grand entertainment, and everything you could want in a television series.
Not guilty, my little Viking!
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentaries on Four Episodes
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