An early appearance by red-haired Pete Wrigley (Michael Marrona) had him griping about his summer job. Mowing the grass next to Route 34, he said, was “worse than eating eyeballs.” While his kid brother of the same name and hair color (Danny Tamberelli) worked as a stockbroker and his best friend Ellen (Alison Fanelli) taught elderly people how to swim in the air, Pete’s summer was monotonous, as he tried to crash cars with his mind (“It only worked once”) and hallucinated images of Ellen (“Maybe because she owed me money…”).
The very concept of a show about two brothers with the same name sounds odd, but for nearly half a decade, The Adventures of Pete & Pete was a staple of the relatively new children’s network. After a handful of one-minute shorts in 1990, the odd half-hour special begat a full-fledged series in 1993. It was as if David Lynch had decided to quit making movies and revive Leave It to Beaver. Iggy Pop played a suburban dad, David Johansen a park ranger, and other in-crowd celebrities appeared as the odd meter-reader and aluminum siding salesman.
In Wellsville, everything was fine, if slightly off-center. Math teachers played bass in student garage bands, kids bought Lou Costello-styled underwear, and nobody minded that the Krebstar Corporation made almost every consumer product in a 50-mile radius. And Artie (Toby Huss), the strongest man in the world, protected the kids until his services were needed elsewhere. The DVD commentaries, variously featuring Marrona, Tamberelli, McRobb, Viscardi, Huss, and other directors and writers, are limited to four of the season’s 13 episodes. These include anecdotes about Iggy Pop blowing out Tamberelli’s guitar amp, Huss being recognized as Artie in public, and the genius of Damian Young, who played manic-depressive bus driver Stu, and they’re entertaining excursions, if not exactly vital maps, along the road to Wellsville.
This road remains appealing to this day. It’s hard to imagine a time when Nickelodeon’s executives weren’t dependent on the three-year-old and stoner demographics watching Spongebob Squarepants. It’s even harder to imagine that Pete and Pete lasted as long as it did. To think that Nickelodeon greenlighted a most offbeat show and then aired some form of it, off and on, for nearly six years seems incredible.
Or maybe it isn’t so incredible. Watching the episodes of Pete and Pete‘s second season back to back reveals that it made use of generic sitcom formulations. Many episodes contain the same plot and character elements you’ve seen a million times before, whether on I Love Lucy or Full House, including the dreaded summer baseball league (“Field of Pete”), field trips (“Yellow Fever”), and punishments for misbehaving kids (“Grounded For Life”).
But with those original shorts and specials, creators/executive producers Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi pounded surreal twists (“absurdity cubed,” according to McRobb on the audio commentary for “Yellow Fever”) into the show’s foundation. And these staved off typical sitcom mediocrity and turned familiar situations into more creative escapades, shows about performance-enhancing slushies (“Field of Pete”), a bus driver pushed to the brink of madness (“Yellow Fever”), and Great Escape-style tunneling on the Fourth of July (“Grounded for Life”).
Even so, somewhere around the middle of the second season, the series lost its innocence. More specifically, the characters began dealing with more “real-life” events and fewer dodgeball games of death. The culmination of this turn—when the focus of the show shifted onto Little Pete—did not come near the end of the season with the two-part epic, “Farewell, My Little Viking,” which saw the exit of Artie and cemented new girl on the block Nona (Michelle Trachtenberg, light years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as little Pete’s best friend.
But if this is the culmination, the beginnings of shift appeared mid-season, with “Time Tunnel,” the episode where Big Pete and Ellen bite the bullet and go on a date. Since those one-minute shorts debuted, when Marrona and Fanelli were barely pubescent, Pete always considered Ellen a “friend and a girl, but not a girlfriend.” They may not have dated later in Season Three, but once the show hit that point, there was turning back. Big Pete had grown up, and began to deal with more “grown-up,” slightly mundane problems, like Driver’s Ed and career day. Little Pete was left to handle much of the show’s weirdness (like overdosing on creamed corn to get out of school dance). The final days of the series were nowhere near as earnest (or depressing) as the latter episodes of The Wonder Years, but for a show that was so devoted to kids’ inner lives, the incursion of “real life” seemed slightly off.
For the viewer who longs for the days when Big Pete was still a part of the surreal life, the second season DVD comes equipped with five of the one-minute shorts (including “Route 54”), as well as an early special, “Space, Geeks, and Johnny Unitas,” in which Ellen and Pete search for extraterrestrials who might have seen the Baltimore Colts’ 1958 NFL championship-winning game.