Saturday, June 11

In Praise of Pete (and Pete)

I don’t suppose any of you remember Mr. Tastee.

He’s tucked away in the peripheral vision of my mind, a guy in a white suit striped like the roof of a Kentucky Fried Chicken drive-through and a spirally plastic head that puts me in mind of Borromini or Dairy Queen. I think I saw him in a commercial on Nickelodeon, and there was something ominous about him, despite the fact he was, essentially, an ice-cream man in a stupid helmet. At least the promo suggested there was something fundamentally off about him, and it’d stuck in my head at the time. I’d forgotten about him until last week.

You might describe him, and his world, as a modern tall tale.

I’m not sure what put me in the mood, but I sent off via Netflix for a DVD of the first season of the old Nick live-action TV show The Adventures of Pete and Pete. I ordered the second DVD of the set since I have a strong dislike of pilot episodes. Life hasn’t got a pilot episode; I like to land in the middle of something and figure each fictive universe out out as I go along.

Mr. Tastee was an escapee from this particular universe, the Petes’ supposedly normal hometown of Wellsville. I’d never seen the episode where they found out his secret, or found out he had a secret, anyway; but I remembered the show in a haze of vague fondness: quirky, low-key, spiced with the occasional garden gnome, and smelling of burning leaves and the northern fall. A little too good to be a kid’s show. Not too smart, or too smarmy or clever, or even, fortunately, too sentimental, but just too good. A little, anyway.

Here’s the best way I can put it: what else can you say about the low-key and slightly warped humor of a show that has the brains to slip in a cameo by Hunter S. Thompson (no, really) in a way that neither you, or anyone else, noticed it?

The show’s premise is deceptively simple: it chronicles the faintly magical-realist adventures of two red-headed brothers, one older, one younger and both named Pete and nobody seems to be concerned why they’re sharing the name. It’s set against a backdrop of that stereotypical TV suburbia so radically different from the real thing. The show revolves around the inner world of the Petes’ family—and the Petes themselves. Not necessarily their imaginary inner world, à la Calvin and Hobbes, but an inner world that has a funnily straightforward way of bleeding into reality without anyone blinking an eye. Mr. Tastee, supervillain Paper Cut, Internationa Adult Conspiracy representative and aluminum-siding salesman John McFlemp, or the littler Pete’s private Superman: gawky Artie, the Strongest Man in the World. Of more later.

The elder Pete is in high school, and unlike most TV teens is neither geek nor dude nor jock. He’s everyone else in high school who never got a teen sitcom about themselves—the straight man to the rest of the universe, but not the butt of the jokes. He’d be The Best Friend to someone glossy and shiny in any other sitcom. He’s in the band, a little awkward, a little gawky, and the first Everyman I’ve come across who doesn’t end up looking like Forrest Gump. He’s the show’s narrator and helmsman. Or maybe helmsboy, since he’s the first television high-schooler who looks like he’s still on a learner’s permit in real life. And it’s he who forms the nexus around which the pleasantly mundane weirdness of his home life revolves.

His younger brother, one of those tubby, stumpy, frustrating little boys with just a little too much floppy hair (Danny Partridge is a classic example of the genus), is his best friend, and emphatically even less glossy and shiny. Little Pete is sort of a genius, one of those kids who’s always messing with something mysterious and possibly toxic and never quite making it work. You know the type: the immediate response is either to want to blow something up or wonder if you can stick it in your mouth, either for research purposes or to gross Mom out. But he’s not a geek: I’m not sure we’d let him into the union without rewriting the bylaws first. He’s also not particularly bright either—while he managed to devise a science project that caused widespread baldness across the Texas panhandle, a favorite hobby of his revolves around sticking bits of a cereal called Presidential Pops up his nose.

(“I mock your cheese danish and all that it stands for!” Thus Pete the Lesser).

The thing about Pete and Pete is not necessarily what it’s about, but how it shows it. First and foremost it does not resort to that truly horrid thing known as “Imagination!” Which, in the orthography of adults who do kiddie shows, is inevitably written with an exclamation mark and accompanied by a ghastly rising intonation suggesting said adult has been lobotomized by Barney.

One adult on the show has had some head trauma, though. The Petes’ Mom. There’s Mom’s Plate, a deadpanned running gaf so central to the show it merits a mention in the opening credits. Joyce (almost invariably just plain Mom) has a bit of metal in her head from a childhood accident. It can pick up radio stations and attract lightning—both of which has its pros and cons. Unlike most TV gags, there’s a certain comic consistency to the way it gets handled in the show. The Petes’ Dad met Mom on the beach while humming along with his metal detector, and Dad’s nemesis once tormented the Petes’ by broadcasting polkas for days at a time via Mom’s Plate.

(Poor woman.)

There’s the mutant Artie, Little Pete’s not-so-imaginary friend and private army. Adults actually can see him, they just don’t really notice him. He looks and acts like Mork’s younger brother with a wardrobe by Where’s Waldo, and the same actor played the unbeatable Wiz on Seinfeld. Artie lives in a porta-john, likes armpit noises—they remind him of his mother—and is the Strongest Man in the World. And nobody ever quite seems to be interested why. He is, like so many of our childhood fantasies, just there in reserve until needed to move a neighbor’s house exactly one inch to the left, or to vanquish (unsuccessfully) an evil Tibetan bowling ball named Rolling Thunder.

The song Love Rollercoaster, incidentally, affects him like a giant funk magnet. Not my words.

Artie briefly disappeared once to became a world champion bowler but he left for good after the inevitable two-part episode. He got replaced in the credits by freckly next-door neighbor kid Nona Mecklenburg, who wears a cast all the time because she likes that scratching feeling and who invented the illegal “volcano” move in Rock, Paper, Scissors. (Her dad was portrayed by, of all people, Iggy Pop). And, being played by Michelle Trachenberg, she seems to have been the only one who got out of Wellsville alive to go on to moderate fame and fortune. (“Nona F. Mecklenburg’s speech patterns could cloud men’s minds.” Thus Pete the Greater).

And there’s a whole constellation of other oddballs. Love-smitten crossing-guards and school janitors. The mysterious underwear quality supervisor Inspector 34. The beautiful blind blonde millionairess who lives two doors down, sort of Jackie Kennedy Onassis channeling Blanche Dubois. Mrs. Fingerwood, beaky and Brueghelian in her frumpy plaid winter coat and bulky skirt, the delightfully homely, electric guitar-playing math teacher from Pete’s high school. Or there’s Little Pete’s school principal, played by Adam West, and Big Pete’s school mascot, played by a rather flaccid fighting squid. Or Big Pete’s bright not-quite-girlfriend Ellen Hickle, one of those close platonic girl-boy things that happen all the time on TV but never quite as smoothly in real life. They started dating after a near-accident involving the Petes’ home minefield removal business, though suddenly everyone sort of forgot about it and in the next episode they were just friends again, which is a good thing since he later went after Penelope Ghiruto, from whose name twenty-seven separate words can be formed.

The show has aged well since its heyday almost a decade ago. The pop cultural references are self-consciously topical, such as the Hoover dam leitmotif (translation: running gag), a minor reference to Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot I picked up the first time I saw the show, and the bizarre string of blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameo roles by everyone from Patty Hearst to the McGlaughlin Group. Either that or they’re deliberately fictive, such as the aforementioned Presidential Pops; and Krebstar, the company that, with flawless little-kid logic, seems to make everything: Kreb of the Loom, Krebbin’ Donuts, Krebstick deodorant (and Lady Krebstick, too), KrebStar Industrial Floorwax, Krolaids and Krums and the KrebScout Survival Guide. Indeed, in the few cases where chronological reality leaks in between the cracks, with cars and clothes and music, there’s something oddly endearing about its dowdy early-nineties setting, in limbo between being au courant and retro.

(“Soon you will be like cheese, boy: melty, melty, melty!” Thus Artie).

There is plenty of creativity here, but none of the Imagination-exclamation-point-wince variety. The show captures, with strange accuracy, the profound, hilarious weirdness of childhood, and yet the fact that we never quite catch onto the fact that it’s so utterly bizarre until we’re adults. Children are at home with the world; they know what’s weird (Pete accidentally digging up Jimmy Hoffa’s wallet), they know what’s gross (Yucatecan killer bees doing battle with Artie, cheese danishes), but neither seldom disturbs them in the ghostly, numinous and strangely alarming way it does adults. It’s weird. Cool.

(“Begone with you pulpy, before I fold you into some type of brochure!” Thus Artie, again. Who else?)

It has a certain texture, a certain consistency about the odd internal logic that governs its excursions into the surreal, always evident below the surface but never, quite delightfully, ever properly articulated, at least the way life is when you’re on the outside looking in like a kid. It’s quirky, but it hasn’t figured out it’s quirky yet, and so avoids the dread scourge of what might be called Too Much Personality Disorder. It’s hilarious, but it never cracks a smile. It’s sort of Chestertonian, in a weird, magical chaotic sort of way.

And then we come to Mr. Tastee.

He figures just in one episode, a mysterious ice-cream man in a mysterious ice-cream truck, who almost becomes modern folklore, suburbia’s response to the Green Man. He signals the beginning of summer with his jingling bell, and then he vanishes at the end of it. But one day in the middle of the summer, he just doesn’t show up, and the magic goes out of the moment. For a few seconds, it looks like the Petes will fail at their strange juggling act and the show will slide into the twee and sentimental but the episode redeems itself in the end when Tastee re-appears and rides off into the sunset on the last day of the summer, like a primitive agricultural myth in a funny plastic mask.

Like so many things in the show, Mr. Tastee remains mysterious, unexplained, faintly comic and faintly unsettling—why, for instance, is hot-waxing the Tasteemobile a one-man job, pray tell? He could have been asinine or he could have been creepy...creepier, but he’s neither. The show has imagined in a weird stroke of genius, a convincing modern-day Kokopeli. Like so many things in myth and in Wellsville, he’s not quite able to be explained away like angel or devil, he’s just there like Artie is there: a low-rent Tom Bombadil for a people that can’t get enough TCBY.

The show is folklore, modern folklore. If you squint and think hard enough about it. Which probably wasn’t the producers’ intention, but it’s what came out anyway. And I suppose that’s how folklore gets made, by accident. Or maybe tall tales, because, as in the best tall tales, it isn’t a dream which you wake up from. Babe the Blue Ox is really as big as Paul Bunyan says it is. And Artie really is the strongest man in the world, not a figure from Little Pete’s already very fevered imagination. He doesn’t vanish when figures from that grey-faced adult conspiracy come into the room. (“Physics makes me strong, Hathead, physics!”)

I recognize the world of Pete and Pete now as the old clapboard-sided neighborhoods of the Northeast and Midwest midway between Levittown and Georgetown, with boxy and pleasantly honest homes half-hidden behind great overhanging trees that, in my mind, are always alight with the scarlet of autumn. Living in Florida, far away from both Hollywood and the default New England which Unreal America still is, even in you live in a big brick house surrounded by a little pocket of woods, there’s always a little alienation and jealousy when you look out on the world of children’s TV. It never quite squares with your own reality, even if it is an Anytown or Pleasantville (Wellsville) so generic it can’t but help be the same. Like any good fictional reality, contradictory specifics only enforce the vagueness—from a reference to Kentucky in one, to the Canadian border in another and a map of New England in the next.

(Wellsville, incidentally, is in a place that’s nicknamed “The Sideburn State.” Like Mrs. Doyle’s first name, it is one of those televisual mysteries we will never solve.)

Pete and Pete doesn’t quite feel as self-consciously goofy as a kid’s show apparently is supposed to; you don’t feel your intelligence being insulted, but rather that you’ve gotten in on some immense inside joke of conspiratorial proportions. It’s funny, almost Pythonesque, but not too Pythonesque. It’s not being clever just to entertain the parents forced to watch as their babies drool and coo on their laps, and it isn’t just faking innocence just to slip something tiresomely subversive to the after-school special crowd. (Telling kids that riboflavin is the vitamin for time travel isn’t subversive, is it?) Some shows today go so far away from Imagination-exclamation-point to become almost smarmily smug with their dull hipness. The Petes do not. It’s the first show I’ve seen that kids and adults, I think, can watch on the same level and laugh at the same things. As the elder Pete once said of Artie, these tall tales of suburbia leave the world "a little bit stranger and a little bit better."

Glass of Kreb’s Milk, anyone?

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