In the weeks following the death of my father, I’ve spent a lot of time re-watching my favorite “comfort food” TV. Many of these are shows I grew up watching as a kid on Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite. I’ve been binging “The Bob Newhart Show” and thinking about how wonderfully brilliant that series is, and remains. Anyone who has read my column over these last thirteen years knows that I love “Rocko’s Modern Life” about as much as any TV series ever made. But last weekend I watched a few episodes a show I don’t think I’ve talked much about in these pages, but a show I love as much as any. A show that I not only think is one of the best kids shows ever made, but one of the best TV series ever made period. “The Adventures of Pete and Pete” was a comedy series that ran on Nickelodeon during the network’s “Golden Age” of the 1990s. It was a full TV series for three seasons, but that series was spun off from a series of one minute long shorts that ran on the network between other programs.
Created by Will McRob and Chris Viscardi, “The Adventures of Pete and Pete” is about two, redheaded brothers both named Pete, but in the context of the show’s universe, there is the older Big Pete and the younger Little Pete. They have a mom, a dad—whose names we never learn—and Big Pete has a friend named Ellen. Ellen who “Is a girl, and is a friend, but not a girlfriend.” Little Pete also has his protector of Artie, The Strongest Man in The World. Artie is a superhero, a weird, strange, warped, and wonderful superhero—who runs around in pajamas. The creators of “Pete and Pete” said they wanted to make something that was “funny, sad, strange, and beautiful.” The first time I heard it I was amazed by how well they succeeded at this. The show is a surreal series that looks at what it’s like to be a kid in a way that feels so authentic, even if it’s weird and the episode is focusing on the alleged supernatural powers of the family bowling ball that have been passed down from father to son. The Pete’s live in a town called Wellsville in a state we never learn the name of, but from one episode focused on summer road trips, we know the state motto is “The Sideburn State.”
I’ve often felt that “Pete and Pete” are sort of like “The Wonder Years” but filtered through the alt-rock moment of the 1990s. And looking over the show, as a kid, I didn’t even know how cool it was as the show got some truly amazing guest stars to turn up over its three-year run. Here’s a shortlist of people who appear on the show, in no particular order: Michale Stipe, Debbie Harry, Kate Pierson, Gordon Gano, L.L. Cool J, Patty Hearst (Yes, THAT Patty Hearst), Marshall Crenshaw, Adam West, and Bebe Neuwirth. Then, in recurring roles on the show were both Iggy Pop and Steve Buscemi, playing dads to friends of both Petes. This is a series that got the Godfather of Punk to play a cardigan-wearing suburban dad who is a member of “The International Adult Conspiracy.” It’s amazing, strange, and beautiful. As an adult watching the show that sadness clicks with me. Watching the show, more than any other series that I can recall of that era takes me to back what it was like to grow up during the ‘90s. I can vividly recall those Saturdays watching it, the feel of the carpet in the living room at home. Something about the look of “Pete and Pete” reminds me of what Summers looked like back then. Maybe it’s not how it was, but in my mind, the math checks.
It’s not that I’m regressing or anything, but as I’ve dealt with all the feelings that come with the loss of a parent, it’s sometimes nice to just turn your brain off for a while, and kinda go back to a time before the part of your brain that makes anxiety happen was activated. It’s natural too, I think we all have a certain nostalgia for the time we grew up. I know for one friend who feels about the ‘80s as I do the ‘90s, the recent shots of the shopping mall on the new season of “Stranger Things” was like a balm for his soul. Sometimes taking a short “mental vacation” with a show like “Pete and Pete” to return to a time when things were a little “funny, sad, strange, and beautiful” can be wonderful. A little moment to remember before the worries, before you took care of an ailing parent, and perhaps to remind you that in the end, things will be OK. I don’t reject adult life, I enjoy mine and I do it in the manner I seem fit. We all cope with loss in different ways. Until last weekend, I didn’t know how badly I needed that little trip back to Wellsville, just to spend a few hours with the good brothers Pete. Watching them try to solve the mystery of the ice cream truck man “Mr. Tastee,” trying to beat up the ocean, trying to figure out how to find your favorite song, and trying to burrow your way to freedom after being grounded on the Fourth of July. It’s a nice place to visit, I hope you’ll go there sometime. See you next week.