Each Friday in The Televangelists, one of our writers examines the met and missed potential of television.
When my family got cable in my early teens there wasn’t much I was allowed to or wanted to watch, but those early live action shows on Nickelodeon were some of my favorite. I had a crush on Alex Mack like crazy as a kid and I didn’t mind an episode of Clarissa Explains it All, but it was the elusive and fantastic Adventures of Pete and Pete that really got me. By the time I saw it the show had already been cancelled, and the reruns only aired sporadically, so it was hard to catch. The show felt as mythologically as the myths it told–the legend of the most beautiful TV show ever made about suburbia in the early 90s.
Pete and Pete was a strange show about two very different brothers named Pete and the mostly-mundane things that kids feel, experience, or think about. What if you stumped your math teacher by asking her what algebra was for and she fell into an existential crisis? Or, what does it feel like to be grounded? It was about the sort of basic experience of being a kid in the suburbs.
But it was also absurd. The world of the show was just slightly off-kilter. The main characters’ mom has a plate in her head that picks up radio stations. The littlest Pete’s best friend is a freakish, but harmless, grown man who goes around in underwear and may or may not be real. Little Pete’s little league team gets addicted to a super-slurpee with LSD-like properties. For the most part all of this was treated as normal in the world of the show–which is what made it work so well.
The show only lasted for three seasons, the first two of which are available on DVD, but nearly 20 years after it finished, The Adventures of Pete and Pete has developed a huge cult following, spurring reunions and episode walkthroughs by devoted fans over at the ever-hip AV Club. And for good reason. The show was probably the greatest kids live action TV show that will ever be made. No, really.
Here are just a few reasons why this short-lived Nick show was maybe the best we’ll ever see, and consequently, why you should jump at the chance to pick up Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD:
1. Pete and Pete is a very conscious and successful attempt to inject mystery and enchantment back into the world. Here’s how one of the show’s creators, Will McRobb, explained their intentions in an interview at the AV Club earlier this year:
We always talk about how one of our goals in the show was to put mystery back into kids’ lives, because everything is so over-explained. That situation’s far worse now than it was back then, because there isn’t anything a kid doesn’t know about how things are actually done. And it just has a way of demystifying everything, and we were trying to mystify things more.
Other shows of the era added weirdness or mysteriousness. Alex Mack was about a girl with super powers. Eerie Indiana was a kind of X-Files for kids with all kinds of wacky characters and strange happenings. But Pete and Pete was different, because the mystery wasn’t out there, most of it was found in the mundane and basic experiences of childhood: staying home sick, getting a crush on some girl you see fleetingly one time at a park, awkward moments talking with your parents.
Pete and Pete made the case for the mysteriousness, the beauty of the ordinary. And in that way it was a pretty life-affirming show in a way that I doubt will ever be replicated. I suspect that for many kids the world of childhood is not as open, as unmediated, as unknown, as rich as it was 20 years ago or more. I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man, but I’m not sure a show like Pete and Pete could even be set in 2012, when our experience are so deeply filtered through social media and text messages. As Will McRobb suggests in the above quote, once everything gets explained–and we might add, once everyone gets connected and accounted for–we lose space for the unknown and the inexplicable.
In that The Adventures of Pete and Pete sought to reinvest the world with the beautifully inexplicable, it did something wonderful that may not be done with the same earnestness again.
2. The show also took childhood experiences and feelings very seriously: the awkwardness of parents and children trying to understand and love each other, the pain of loss, the bitter-sweetness of growing out of childhood, the confusion of blossoming romantic feelings. In this way Pete and Pete had more in common with The Wonder Years or Freaks and Geeks than iCarly. Except that the former two shows were written for adults, not kids. You’re not likely to find another kids’ show that treats childhood this thoughtfully and beautifully, because these issues aren’t considered entertaining or popular for kids. Nostalgic adults may want to reminisce about the how hard it is to grow away from your siblings as you get older, but kids are only interested in simple morals and humorous situations.
3. Perhaps the key to the entire show was the unique circumstances surrounding its production. As opposed to most live action kids shows on Nick or Disney these days, Pete and Pete was essentially a under-the-executives’-radar, low budget, experiment. The show started as 60-second promos for Nickelodeon and were so successful that they eventually evolved into 30 minute specials and finally a full series. This meant that the show wasn’t a pre-planned, focus-tested, marketing-driven, formula-based, image-conscious show aimed at a specific demographic. So, the show had a kind of freedom to experiment that was rare at the time and is even rarer today.
If you have a chance, watch The Adventures of Pete and Pete. It’s one of the very few children’s shows that I can’t wait to show my kids as they grow older. The show captured a deeply human vision of childhood that we may never see again, on TV in this genre.