“Grounded For Life,” (season 2, episode 1; original airdate Sept. 4, 1994)
And we’re back, kicking off season two—some might say the best season—of The Adventures Of Pete And Pete. It’s been a long couple months off and it’s plum refreshing to rejoin our wacky pals in Wellsville, USA for whatever scrapes and conflicts of individuality they’ll get themselves into this season.
Season two is notable for a few things, one of them being, of course, the introduction of Michelle Trachtenberg as Nona F. Mecklenberg. She’s just weird enough to be little Pete’s best friend, and just adorable enough to make it entirely unsurprising that she’s still working—and working deviously well on shows like Gossip Girl—today. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, the exposition.
It’s summer, of course. Pete And Pete loves summer. Little Pete decides to solve a problem that’s baffled scientists for all eternity—what happens when you turn a humidifier and a dehumidifier on at the same time—but, having inexplicably decided to do this test outside, ends up making a gigantic scorch mark on his dad’s pride and joy, the lawn. After being forced to re-plant the lawn seed by seed, turned into a human sprinkler, and give the lawn a deep Swedish massage, Pete still doesn’t show enough remorse to satisfy Don’s seething rage. Thus, he ends up grounded for a month, well past Pete’s favorite holiday: the Fourth of July.
Don’s pissed because he’s in a lawn contest with evil neighbor Mr. Lerdner, but that’s almost negligible here. What does matter is that Pete’s all too blasé, and so he feels the wrath of the International Adult Conspiracy. He’s trapped inside with only an Artie-gifted ant farm to keep him company. And thus, an idea is born.
Using a 24-gauge paperweight shaped like the Statue of Liberty, Pete starts tunneling from the Wrigley’s basement into the Mecklenberg’s yard. When he emerges, ideally on the Fourth of July, he’ll make a run for it, heading anywhere but the Manitoba peninsula—where he had a run-in with a mountie earlier in the show.
Setting aside that a 24-gauge paperweight probably wouldn’t get the job done when there were presumably tools in the house, it’s a valiant plan. He uses Christmas lights for tunnel illumination and the sprinkler pipes for air. Big Pete helps him hide the dirt in the family’s coffee pot before learning to make his own pottery.
Somewhere along the way, Nona hears Pete working and starts chatting him up through the sprinkler pipes. She misses her old house so much she’s been putting up pictures of the brick on the siding of her new one. Her dog, Nimbus, hasn’t peed once since they moved to Wellsville. And while the “F” in her name stands for Frances, she’s planning on legally changing it to frame or forklift.
For a new girl on the block, Nona’s got Pete’s back from minute one. When his tunnel starts killing his dad’s lawn, Nona’s out there with a squirt can of green paint. When she gets busted talking to the lawn, she convinces Don that it’s a botanical fact that talking to the lawn makes it grow, thus setting up some quasi-romantic scenes of Don sprawled out on his Kentucky Blue waxing rhapsodic about how its “verdant lushness tickles [his] cheek and takes [his] breath away.” When evil neighbor Lerdner loosens the Wrigley’s water socket in the middle of the night, flooding the lawn and collapsing Pete’s tunnel, it’s Nona’s impassioned version of the words on the base of Lady Liberty that pushes Pete to finish up and break free.
Once he breaks free, though, Pete feels instant remorse, knowing that he can’t just leave his family. He is, after all, a Wrigley, no matter what. He sets about using Nimbus to ruin Lerdner’s lawn, because “doggy wee-wee kills grass faster than acid.” After an unsuccessful go at putting the dog’s paw in warm water, Nona strikes upon a solution: Showing him a picture of his favorite pee spot on the carpet from the duo’s old house. One mournful sniff and Nimbus is Niagara Falls, burning up Lerdner’s lawn with his canine napalm.
Of course, this is when Don picks to come back from the fireworks, sad that he’s left Pete at the house after seeing an old man with a buffalo plaid cap and a biker sporting a Petunia tattoo. Wrigley Sr. and Jr. make up, with Pete telling his dad that he’s sorry he screwed up the lawn because he knows it’s important to Don. “Most other fathers have stuff they’re good at,” he says, “like business or sports. All you have is a pile of grass.” It’s a burn, but it’s a little bit true. On the other hand, Don does have his family, and if we learned anything from season one, it’s that family’s the most important thing to him, period.
“Grounded For Life” kicks off season two of Pete And Pete without any great fanfare, other than some stock footage fireworks, but it’s successful all the same. In fact, Pete And Pete works for me because it’s not over-the-top—or, rather, because it is over the top but in this understated, “duh, of course both their names are Pete” way. It’s not a big deal that Pete made a run for the border on his dad’s mower. It gets him grounded, but his parents don’t freak out about it, Home Alone-style. It’s a one-minute vignette, and while it’s absolutely spot on, when it’s done, it’s done.
I haven’t worked on a TV show and I don’t know what it’s like, but it seems like working on Pete And Pete had to be fun. There are far worse ways to spend time than brainstorming different F-words that Nona would want to change her name to or filling Big Pete’s sweatshirt full of dirt so that it would all tumble out onto the street. The show gives actors, writers, props people, and beyond the chance to live in this whole world that sits in an alternate reality, one where childhood is idealized—struggles and all—and where, no matter how dorky you are, how many plates your mom has in her head, or how much crap you take from Endless Mike, everything’ll turn out alright eventually.
• When Artie visits Pete, he’s pushed to describe the smell of rain on summer asphalt to the jailbird, causing extreme emotional strain.
• Nona, meeting Pete for the first time, “I thought you’d be shorter.” “I am."
• I like to think that Pete And Pete just had one command-room set, or one set of props that could be used to set that up, no matter who was manning it at any given time.
• Pete tried to con the mountie by posing as a traveling salesman, saying, “Dirk Wayne. Hand lotion’s my game. Guess you guys get kind of chapped up here, huh?”
• According to Artie, Don has soft hands for a man.