At the risk of overgeneralizing, it seems reasonably safe to say that any television series that features a metal plate in a woman’s head and a preteen boy’s tattoo in its opening credits, presenting them as equals with the rest of the show’s main characters, is bound to be at least a tad offbeat — and that’s not even accounting for the fact that the two of those other main characters are brothers with the same first name.
Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of The Adventures of Pete & Pete.
Created by Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi, the show originated as a collection of one-minute shorts that first appeared on Nickelodeon in 1989. A handful of longer specials followed over the next several years, and in 1993 the network picked up The Adventures of Pete & Pete as a regular half-hour series that would end up running for three seasons, coming to a close in 1996. At first glance, the premise might appear rather conventional, save for the oddity of the shared name: middle-class suburban teenager Pete Wrigley and his younger brother, Pete Wrigley — henceforth “Big Pete” and “Little Pete,” respectively, for the sake of clarity — live with dad Don and mom Joyce in the town of Wellsville (somewhere in the U.S., state unspecified), where they experience the challenges, pains and pleasures of growing up. Superficially, too, many of the situations the boys encounter are typical fare for television series centered on children and teens, from family vacations to part-time jobs to the death of a pet, plus any number of stories involving school, sports, friends, bullies, crushes, parents and the fraternal relationship between the two Petes.
What Pete & Pete does with this well-trodden subject matter, however, is anything but ordinary. Take, for example, a scene in the special “What We Did on Our Summer Vacation” in which the Wrigleys spend a day at the beach. With the aid of a metal detector, Don discovers a 1978 Cutlass Supreme buried in the sand — and after digging it out by hand, the family piles in and drives home in it. (The metal detector was also responsible for introducing Don to Joyce at the same beach years earlier, he explains, because it was set off by the aforementioned plate in her head.) Another episode (“Pinned!”) sees Endless Mike Hellstrom, the show’s preeminent bully*, pulling out his own tooth with a pair of pliers, having a kidney removed and seemingly murdering fellow students by means of a hand dryer and a vibrating bed, all part of his quest to avenge an embarrassing incident by wrestling Big Pete. A baseball episode (“Field of Pete”) features the Orange Lazarus, a potent, destructive, drug-like slushy that can induce a brain freeze in 1.2 seconds, much to the horror of its creator, a man named Oppenheimer who “wanted world peace.” There’s the one where Bus Driver Stu gets into a fight with a scarecrow (“Yellow Fever”), the one where a pay phone has been ringing for twenty-seven years (“The Call”), the one where the Petes compete for a family heirloom bowling ball that manages to roll home after being abandoned in the woods (“When Petes Collide”), the one where the Wrigleys and their neighbors invoke a garbage man’s wrath by deciding to celebrate Christmas every day instead of throwing out their trees (“O Christmas Pete”)… All in all, the word “adventures” in the title is no exaggeration.
While it’s impossible to pick a single favorite episode, one of the more memorable — one that captures a lot of the unique spirit of the series — is the second season premiere, “Grounded for Life.” Written by Michael Memoli and directed by Don Pietra (neither of whom, oddly enough, is credited on any other episode or has any other credits whatsoever on IMDb), it originally aired on September 4, 1994. Although Big Pete (Michael C. Maronna) is present and serves as the narrator, as is generally the case, this is very much a Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli) episode. Big Pete is something of an everyman, a fairly sensible figure in this often surreal world of eccentric types, even if he does have occasional quirks of his own. Little Pete is a tattooed rebel in a red flannel hunting hat and oversized shirts, frequently at war with adults, armed with an attitude and an array of quasi profanities such as “blowhole.” (“I know that’s defined as a muscular flap on a sea mammal, but… it scares me,” says a rattled teacher in “X = Why?”) Episodes centered on Big Pete tend to have him, say, cramming for a test (“Don’t Tread on Pete”), taking shop class (“Tool and Die”) or driver’s ed (“Road Warrior”), going on a tentative date with his best friend, Ellen (“Time Tunnel”) — “normal” things, at least in theory. Little Pete is more likely to sell the house while his parents are away for the weekend (“35 Hours”) or to become the protégé of a perfectionist underwear inspector whom he regards as his guardian angel (“Inspector 34”). “Grounded for Life” has a less “out there” concept at its core — Little Pete gets grounded — but the execution is pure Pete & Pete.
It’s summertime in Wellsville, and Don (Hardy Rawls) is fully engaged in his annual battle against the Wrigleys’ neighbor across the street, one Mr. Lerdner (John Rothman). (Note: It sometimes sounds as if Big Pete is saying “Lerkner” or “Lergner,” and the character’s name isn’t written in the closing credits to confirm the spelling. “Lerdner” will have to suffice.) A stereotypical suburban dad often taken to extremes, Don’s interests include things like grilling, bowling, fishing, cleaning out his gutters, making good time on the road — and, as is the case here, his beloved lawn. For the sixth consecutive year, he and Mr. Lerdner have made a bet: whichever man has the best-looking lawn on the Fourth of July will be declared the winner, and the loser has to mow both lawns for the remainder of the summer. If the kids of Pete & Pete can be a little strange, they have nothing on the adults. So many of them are eccentric, obsessive, even monomaniacal: enigmatic ice cream man Mr. Tastee, never seen out of his face-concealing vanilla soft serve helmet; word-problem-loving math teacher Miss Fingerwood, who thinks the number 2 is her mother; Bus Driver Stu, perpetually within a few steps of a mental and/or emotional breakdown, no matter how cheerful he may appear. (Never sing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” in his presence if he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend, Bus Driver Sally.) Mr. Lerdner is no exception, a man with a full-fledged command center in which he can monitor the goings-on in the Wrigleys’ yard via a surveillance camera hidden in a pink plastic flamingo — and a man not above dirty tactics. It’s no surprise that he’s proved victorious in all five previous competitions or that Don is dead set on beating him this year.
Unfortunately for Don, he also has his own younger son working against him, however inadvertently. Driven by curiosity, Little Pete decides to see what happens when a humidifier and a dehumidifier are turned on while sitting next to each other — “the question that had haunted mankind for centuries,” as Big Pete describes it. The result? An explosion that leaves a giant scorch mark on the lawn. Little Pete is unrepentant (“Who cares about your stupid grass?”), and the more Don punishes him — forcing him to replant the grass seed by seed, to act as a human sprinkler, to give the ground a Swedish massage — the more defiant he becomes. At last, he makes a break for it, hopping on a riding mower and heading north. He manages to reach a border crossing at “the Manitoba peninsula,” but it’s there that his great escape comes to an abrupt end, as his story about being a traveling hand lotion salesman fails to convince the Mountie (Jeff Kaufman) on duty (in full dress uniform, natch) to allow him to enter Canada. (The two hockey players casually strolling across the border with their skates and sticks are a delightful touch, by the way.)
Once the Mountie escorts Little Pete home, towing the mower behind his horse, an understandably furious Don announces that his son is grounded. “Parameters?” “House.” “Privileges?” “Food and bathroom.” “Duration?” A pause, during which Big Pete, in his voice-over narration, wonders whether his father will show mercy or be a parent. It’s the latter. “One month,” Don says, followed by an extremely dramatic musical sting. Although alternative and indie rock — much of it provided by the band Polaris, seen during the opening credits performing the theme song, “Hey Sandy” — is a major component of Pete & Pete‘s DNA, stock instrumentals of this sort are just as significant. (This one happens to be Hubert Clifford’s “Drama Link D.”) There’s a certain ironic quality, a knowing campiness in the show’s use of these pieces. Whether they’re upbeat and perky (like King Palmer’s “Hackney Carriage” and Laurie Johnson’s “Happy Go Lively”) or thrilling and intense (like Johnson’s “Chase That Car” and “Fisticuffs”), they almost always sound more than a bit over-the-top for whatever situation is at hand. Even so, the stock music does help to underline the importance of these goings-on to the characters involved — especially the young characters — regardless of how trivial or absurd they may appear to somebody on the outside. As he processes his sentence, one particular implication stands out in Little Pete’s mind: “I’ll miss the Fourth of July, the fireworks!” Joyce (Judy Grafe) — perhaps the most balanced, down-to-earth adult on the series, despite her decidedly quirky ability to pick up radio signals via the metal plate in her head — echoes sympathetically, “He’ll miss the fireworks,” but Don refuses to relent. Such a punishment is hardly unjustified here, yet there’s no denying how cruel it must appear to a child, how special those only-once-a-year events like Fourth of July fireworks can be, not to mention summer vacation in general. As Little Pete puts it, “You might as well ground me for life!”
From this scene, the episode cuts to a dejected Little Pete standing at his bedroom window, wearing a blue prison-style uniform complete with a number printed on the shirt. Ludicrous? Certainly, but not nearly as ludicrous as the prison-style visiting window that’s been set up downstairs. The odd world of Pete & Pete is, in some respects, the real world viewed through a young person’s eyes and filtered through a young person’s imagination. (Something of this kid’s perspective concept is on display in the opening credits, which not only feature the characters’ names instead of the actors’ but also label the parents “Mom” and “Dad,” not “Joyce” and “Don.”) Any child facing a month-long grounding might look upon it as a jail sentence; the difference on this show is that the absurd and exaggerated aspects are, to all appearances, entirely genuine and concrete.
Under his father’s supervision, Little Pete receives a visit from his very own personal superhero: Artie, the Strongest Man [dramatic pause] in the World (Toby Huss). Artie is… well, even by Pete & Pete standards, Artie is a shining beacon of weirdness. (Big Pete and Ellen are suitably surprised in the special “Space, Geeks, and Johnny Unitas” when testing confirms him to be a human and not an alien.) A mighty being prone to deranged smiles, near-constant posing and other bizarre bodily contortions, costumed in a red and blue striped shirt and horn-rimmed glasses, he might be found beating up the ocean to protest the end of summer, paddling a land canoe through a neighbor’s yard or trying to restore an amnesiac turtle friend’s memory. (“Clark, tell the boy about Paris — you, me, Hemingway, the shiny tugboat.”) Above all, he’s a devoted friend and protector to Little Pete. After receiving a frisking from Don (“You have soft hands for a man, Don!”), he seats himself opposite Little Pete at the visiting window and presents the boy with an unexpected gift: an ant farm. “A delightful new product. I thought you would… dig it,” Artie says, nodding and raising his eyebrows suggestively. It’s not until later, as he lies on his bed watching the ants hard at work, that Little Pete understands. He decides then and there that his only chance at freedom is to follow their example and tunnel out of the house.
In this, as with the prison imagery, the show seems to be drawing on common childhood fantasies and making them come to life, no matter how improbable or downright impossible they would be in the real world. It’s a kind of wish fulfillment, a means of allowing young viewers — and maybe a few older ones — to live vicariously through Little Pete. Big Pete might be the more relatable Wrigley brother on the whole, but Little Pete is the one who frequently gets to do the things that many a kid can only dream of doing, from the semi-achievable (staying awake for days on end to break a world record, faking sick and then venturing outside to spy on his on class at school) to the surreal (selling the house, showing up on a jet ski to disrupt adult swim at the community pool). Digging a tunnel that begins in the Wrigleys’ basement and ends in one of the yards across the street — and in time for the Fourth of July, no less, said to be a week away at the start of the episode — is definitely on the less feasible end of the spectrum, and it’s all the better for its absurdity. His primary tool, more symbolic than strictly practical, is a large Statue of Liberty paperweight, although Big Pete in his narration notes that “for the hard layers of rhyolite lava, there was plenty of dynamite.” [Cut to Little Pete with a Wile E. Coyote-style detonator.] For all of Big Pete’s relative normality, he tends to accept a good bit of the madness around him without flinching. In fact, in his own low-key, deadpan fashion, he often manages to imbue whatever he’s talking about with an epic quality, thereby elevating it — repeatedly linking Little Pete’s struggle for freedom to the American Revolution, for instance.
Little Pete isn’t the only child in the neighborhood who longs to escape. Across the street, next door to Mr. Lerdner, lives Nona F. Mecklenberg (Michelle Trachtenberg), newly arrived in Wellsville and absolutely miserable there. (In theory, any young girl who wants to have her middle name legally changed from Frances to either Frame or Forklift should be a perfect fit for Wellsville, but she doesn’t appear to realize that.) Desperately lonely, she wants nothing more than to return to her old home, so much so that she resorts to plastering the siding of her new house with photos of the bricks from her previous house — a nice blend of quirkiness and poignancy. The fact that her dog, Nimbus, has been unable to urinate since their move strikes a similar balance. (Moments of melancholy are a regular feature of Pete & Pete. Just as the stock music serves its own purpose, certain Polaris songs like “Everywhere” and “Ashamed of the Story I Told” really help to create the appropriate atmosphere.) It’s Nimbus, sniffing at a sprinkler, who leads Nona to the Wrigleys’ yard; when she removes the top of the sprinkler and peers down into the hole, she finds Little Pete promising a post-escape steak dinner to Petunia, the woman tattooed on his forearm. Unfazed by this discovery — or perhaps just happy to have someone around her own age to talk to — Nona strikes up a conversation, and before long she and Little Pete are making plans to run away together once he breaks out. “Anywhere but Canada,” he specifies. “How about Missouri? It’s the Show Me State,” Nona replies, emphasizing the nickname with a bit of a jazz hands-esque gesture. Yes, she’s Wellsville material, without question.
Even more so than Artie or Big Pete (the latter of whom takes charge of hiding the excess dirt, some of which gets turned into pottery and some of which ends up in the family’s coffeemaker), Nona becomes Little Pete’s greatest ally in this episode. Her loyalty and wits are put to the test immediately when Don comes outside to ask why she’s conversing with his lawn, but she’s quick with an explanation. “Talking to your grass helps it grow, you know. It’s a botanic fact,” she says. Although he scoffs and sends her away, nighttime finds him lying on his side in the grass, stroking it and addressing it in, uh… very romantic terms: “I love the way the moonbeams shimmer off your midnight dew. Your soft fragrant tendrils caress the backs of my feet, and your verdant lushness tickles my cheek and takes my breath away.” (Little Pete, listening underground, is disgusted.) Once the tunnel starts to kill the grass above it, creating a tell-tale serpentine brown path through the yard, Nona steps in with a container of green paint to hide the damage. Later still, after an act of sabotage by Mr. Lerdner wreaks havoc with both the Wrigleys’ lawn and the tunnel, it’s Nona — bearing a lit sparkler and reciting a modified version of “The New Colossus” — who reignites a dispirited Little Pete’s desire for emancipation. “When Pete heard the impassioned words of Lady Liberty, he thought of the countless millions before him who struggled against oppression, risking everything they had so they might one day be able to utter the one word that meant more than life itself: freedom,” narrates Big Pete over strains of patriotic music and stock footage of the Statue of Liberty.
On the night of July Fourth, while the non-grounded members of the Wrigley family are off at a park to watch fireworks, Little Pete’s amazingly effective paperweight emerges from the Mecklenbergs’ front yard, torch first, soon followed by the triumphant escapee himself. “I thought you’d be shorter” is Nona’s slightly hesitant first remark, to which Little Pete replies, “I am.” She’s eager to flee before they get caught, but he announces that he has to do something before they go, “something for my dad.” Mr. Lerdner had flooded the Wrigleys’ lawn by loosening a faucet, so Little Pete decides to give him a flood of his own — by persuading Nimbus to empty his near-bursting bladder on Mr. Lerdner’s lawn. The dog is indifferent until Nona comes up with the idea of showing him a picture of “his favorite pee spot” from their old house. [Cue waterfall imagery and reverent choral music.] Again, there’s that blend of the odd and the oddly touching, with Little Pete demonstrating that he finally understands how much the lawn means to Don, even though the two of them have been in conflict throughout the episode. Rebellious and disrespectful though Little Pete often is, he does love his father, and getting a dog to pee on a nasty neighbor’s grass is a very Little Pete way of showing it.†
Just as Nimbus is doing his business amidst a cloud of steam, Don pulls up in the family station wagon. Despite his firm stance against releasing Little Pete for the fireworks, he had found himself unable to stop thinking about his younger son when he, Joyce and Big Pete were at the park without him, and at last made up his mind to set him free — though the unexpected sight of Little Pete standing outside undoes this softening of his attitude in an instant. “I’m a Yankee Doodle Daddy, Yankee Doodle do or… DIE!” he sings and then bellows. Little Pete, somewhat surprisingly, offers little resistance as his father leads him back toward their house with threats to ground him until Christmas, until he’s old enough to drive. It takes what Big Pete calls “the most magical moment of the summer” to save him: the start of the fireworks. The sight instantly causes Don’s attitude to do another one-eighty as he decides that keeping Little Pete locked up “goes against everything America stands for” (they’re a very dramatic family), and the boy responds by apologizing, which is all that Don says he wanted to hear. Little Pete continues, seemingly without malice: “I mean, most other fathers have stuff that they’re good at, like business or sports. All you have is a pile of grass.” Don cringes a bit (“Thanks, son, that’s all I wanted to hear”), but it’s not enough to spoil the moment. Offbeat and out-and-out weird though it can be, The Adventures of Pete & Pete is nevertheless a series with a lot of heart.
In the end, the bet between Don and Mr. Lerdner is called off because both sides cheated, and the task of mowing the two lawns falls on Little Pete as a substitute punishment for the grounding. Nona, meanwhile, decides to give Wellsville a second chance. Whatever the future holds for her there, it’s certain to be an adventure.
* Apologies to Pit Stain, Papercut and Open Face
† In a similar vein, an earlier special, “Apocalypse Pete,” sees Don and Little Pete bonding as they engage in a prank war against Ellen’s father, until they almost go too far. It deals with the issue of Little Pete being a disappointment to Don, unable to please him even when he makes an effort to do so, and all in all it complements “Grounded for Life” quite nicely. The two-parter “Farewell, My Little Viking” from later in the second season also concerns this father/son relationship and brings Artie into the mix, along with a sinister organization called the International Adult Conspiracy.
This post is part of The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.
2 thoughts on “The Adventures of Pete & Pete: “Grounded for Life” (1994)”
Thanks for taking part in the blogathon! I was in my early thirties when The Adventures of Pete & Pete aired, so I didn’t watch Nickelodeon except for Nick-At-Nite. It sounds like the sort of show I would enjoy though! I’ve always enjoyed shows that are a bit left of centre.
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Yes, it was definitely a show that always stood out as something different, though I don’t think I appreciated just how different and downright odd it could be when I was watching it as a child.