Sunday, November 25, 2007

“Why is the grass wet? Is it raining? Huh?” – The Adventures of Pete & Pete

After a solid, but not spectacular episode and one that could have been perfect but wasn’t, The Nightcrawlers aims a bit lower, but rises above the previous two. It has more polish than The King of the Road and by solidifying a character (in this case, Little Pete) rather than throwing two characters’ relationship into a new realm (Big Pete and Ellen in Day of the Dot), The Nightcrawlers has a more attainable goal, fitting with the show’s humble raison d’etre.

In the past two episodes, Little Pete had spent a lot of time on the sidelines. I already bemoaned that he did little more than spout a few one-liners in The King of the Road. He got a B-story in Day of the Dot, but he wasn’t really the main character of it, with the plot focusing more on Bus Driver Stu. So here is the first Little Pete-centric episode. Indeed, Big Pete has very little screentime, mostly only giving his trademark voiceover. It’s a nice change of pace for the narrative, turning Big Pete from the protagonist filling us in on background story or internal monologue, to a closer to omniscient narrator, lending This Week’s Adventure a mythic quality. Here, Big Pete sounds like he’s telling the tale of a legendary outlaw.

Indeed, Little Pete has always been a brash non-conformist. Even without the shorts or specials (which had already established his urge to fight authority), what scant amount of Little Pete we have gotten heretofore has been Little Pete talking back to his dad or trying to bully or trick Bus Driver Stu into taking him home. Here, he takes on his biggest challenge yet: The International Parent Conspiracy, which the show sets up in signature fashion as the neighborhood parents scheming to oppress their children. The idea of parents plotting to, say, switch to 1% milk from whole is a bit silly, but it works in context.

Little Pete’s attempt to break the world record for sleeplessness in order to protest his scheduled bedtime is the right level of ambitiousness for the show, completely absurd without running too far amok to ruin its deadpan nature. And the whole thing is played off well, like a mix of The Great Escape and a horror film. Little Pete rallies other neighborhood kids (and, of course, Artie the Strongest Man in the World) to join him in his sleeplessness and everybody drops off, one by one. The overwrought drama when each kid falls asleep is hilarious, played off as if the kid died, giving the whole thing a nice edge of dark humor. There’s an especially good scene where one girl, who had realized that staring at the sun causes her to sneeze and thus stay awake, wanders into a garden during a cloudy time of day. The scene’s tragedy only adds to its hilarity. (As a side note, the girl was clearly Asian-American, yet her father is played by a Caucasian man. Was she adopted? Of mixed heritage? I guess it’s another one of the show’s mysteries.)

The episode is full of other great moments and touches: the children gradually going insane, Artie’s funky dance moves, Clem inexplicably growing a beard, the diagram of Mom’s brain. It’s an incredibly fun episode and it all ties together to show Little Pete’s stubborn determination. He is just the type of person who would go through such a ridiculous task to fight a perceived slight like having to go to bed at 9 p.m. When I saw this episode as a child, it was one of my favorites. I loved the idea of fighting bedtimes by staying up all night playing flashlight tag. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that other kids tried to mimic Little Pete’s act of resistance. And really, that’s what Little Pete is – he’s the hero for every kid who has ever felt like he or she was treated unfairly because he was a kid. Some may dislike him for being crude or impulsive, but most kids would love to be so and get away with it. If Big Pete is the passive observer, finding himself in strange situations, Little Pete seeks them out. He brings the adventures to Pete & Pete.

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