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December 7-13, 2005

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Happily Deranged

Kids' show 'Pete & Pete' mined underground rock way before 'The O.C.' did


By Sara Bir

AM I the only one who's under the impression that a prime-time television teen drama releases a new soundtrack CD full o' indie rock by Pitchfork-approved bands, like, every other week? It's not like The O.C. was the first TV show to feature songs favored by the show's young, hip creator; a sublimely goofy Nickelodeon series called The Adventures of Pete & Pete beat The O.C. to the underground rock by a good decade.

It's a great time to be a Pete & Pete fan. The second season of The Adventures of Pete & Pete just came out on DVD. Though it aired on a kids' network, The Adventures of Pete & Pete was clearly a show created by adults—in this case, Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb—for their own amusement. Pete & Pete, which lasted from 1993 to 1996, centered on two redheaded brothers, both named Pete, who lived in the unexceptionally idyllic burg of Wellsville, USA.

The show had a bit of a David Lynch quality, combining both reverence and contempt for the mythical American middle-class suburban lifestyle. The kids on the show never played video games and hardly watched television, because they were too busy running around breaking rules. Stoic Big Pete (Michael Maronna) navigated the ruthless terrain of earliest adulthood, while rebellious Little Pete (Danny Tamborelli) had a tattoo on his arm named Petunia and his own personal superhero named Artie, the Strongest Man in the World. Many episodes dealt with Little Pete or Big Pete challenging the tyranny of the International Adult Conspiracy: bedtime, chores, algebra.

One of the show's defining features was its placement of jangly rock songs to punctuate poignant or joyous moments. Pete & Pete showcased songs by bands almost totally unknown outside of college radio—bands that, for the most part, did not even manage to be a footnote in '90s alt-rock history (Gothic Archies, Fat Tulips or Nice, anyone?). But Apples in Stereo, Magnetic Fields and Poi Dog Pondering all had songs in an episode or two, while the members of Luscious Jackson starred as themselves, playing at Little Pete's middle school dance.

The musical heart and soul of the show was Polaris, the series' house band. Polaris was the nom de TV of Mark Mulcahy of the band Miracle Legion. Polaris sang Pete & Pete's theme song, "Hey Sandy," and the group appears in the opening credits, playing in the Wrigleys' front yard.

The episode that best illustrates the show's reliance on music is season one's "Hard Day's Pete," in which Little Pete stumbles across a band jamming in a garage (Polaris again) on his way to school. He is captivated by what he has heard, but yet he knows nothing about the band. As the days pass, and he sees no sign of the group in the garage, he begins to feel the song's refrain slipping from his memory. So what does Little Pete do? He starts his own band, called the Blowholes, so he can learn to play the song himself, because never hearing the song again is simply not an option.

Probably the most arresting aspect of Pete & Pete was Iggy Pop, who had a recurring role as James Mecklenberg, the futzy, cardigan-wearing father of Little Pete's friend Nona. Michael Stipe, Debbie Harry, Kate Pierson, Gordon Gano, David Johansen, Suzy Roche, Syd Straw and LL Cool J all guest starred on Pete & Pete as well.

What did this prove? Your average 9-year-old in 1994 did not care if Juliana Hatfield guest-starred as a comely cafeteria lady in the "Don't Tread on Pete" episode, because the average 9-year-old in 1994 didn't know who Juliana Hatfield was. No, Viscardi and McRobb had these people and played their music on the show because they could, and it demonstrates how a network allowing producers creative freedom can pay off heartily for viewers at home. If the current trend of teen-centric TV soundtracks continues, so much the better, but it won't matter to me, anyway—I'll stick to my Pete & Pete DVDs, thanks.


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