"Valentine's Day Massacre" (Pilot season, episode 1; originally aired 02/09/1991)
It’s kind of a daunting process to write about The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, honestly. To so, so many 20- and 30-somethings (the majority of which seem to be A.V. Club readers), Pete And Pete is and was the greatest thing since high-speed Internet. It shaped people’s lives in a really positive way, and that’s probably one of the nicest things that could be said about a kids TV show.
That’s kind of the thing, though. Pete And Pete, while about kids and on a children’s network, wasn’t really a kiddie show. That’s partially why it translates so well today. Much like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, it was a kids show written by adults who a) didn’t think kids are total pants-pooping idiots and b) wanted to write something that adults—whether they be up-all-night stoners or parents along for the ride—could watch and enjoy all the same. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, but when it’s done right, it’s weird and awkward and sublimely funny all at the same time.
That kind of “damn the man, we’re doing what we want” attitude comes across pretty clearly in “Valentine’s Day Massacre,” which first aired as a one-off Pete special before getting kind of awkwardly tacked on to the first season of the show. The episode’s plot is thus: Inspired by his dad’s lifelong desire to be an Olympic discus champion, Big Pete takes to his school’s field and goes for broke, discus-wise, one cold February night. By horrible, horrible luck, the discus ends up in a metal bucket that happens to hold the school’s mascot, Edna the fighting squid, killing her instantly. Pete, Pete, and Ellen secretly cover this atrocity up by burying Edna at the 50-yard line, not wanting to upset the groundskeeper/squidskeeper Mr. Beverly (played by the always weird Richard Edson).
At the same time, both Pete and Mr. Beverly are crushing on the school’s math teacher, Miss Fingerwood (offbeat rock ‘n’ roller Syd Straw), who is “mathematically pure” and has a particular flair for writing twos. The school’s bully, Open Face (named for his favorite sandwiches, of course), figures out Pete’s crush after his particularly awkward display of word problem affection (“If one is the loneliest number, then X+1 over the circumference of a full moon equals the square root of eternity, us eating donuts together beneath a willow tree.”) Open Face then strikes up a deal with Mr. Beverly to get Pete out of the way in exchange for custody of Edna, who Beverly thinks ran away because she was jealous of his crush.
After Ellen gets mad at Pete for liking someone who smells like chalk, Open Face makes her a flounder and cheddar open-faced sandwich, “melting the cheese with the radiant power of [her] glowing beauty,” and ostensibly gets her to give him Pete’s big, bad squid-killing secret. Ultimately, it turns out that Ellen didn’t tell, and after Pete decides he's really not that into 31-year-old math teachers who probably aren’t really into 13-year-olds anyway, Miss Fingerwood and Mr. Beverly get together, spurred on by the geometrically perfect heart he made—using the line painting machine, of course for her on the school’s field. Oh, and he’s not mad at Pete for killing Edna because, well, it was an accident and he came clean. Plus, he gave her a proper burial, putting her in her uniform (?) and at least humming the fight song, so, it’s all okay. Open Face is thwarted, and all is right with the world, for now.
Now, children’s television shows always have plots that require at least a little suspension of disbelief. Why, for instance, would anyone not freaking figure out that Miley Stewart was pop superstar Hannah Montana? But with Pete And Pete, the show’s creators suspended disbelief so far as to almost set the show in a parallel universe. The show was shot in New Jersey, and Wellsville, where the show is set, looks like, well, New Jersey, but the actual—or fictional, as it were—reality of what it means to live in Wellsville, to live in Pete-world, is completely topsy-turvy. The show’s major plot points, like a crush on a loony math teacher, are outlandish enough, but what makes Wellsville, and Peteville, so special is that the show’s writers took care to make every single little detail just a little off, but in such a charming way. It’s Wes Andersonian, but in 1991, when this show originally aired, ol’ Wes was still kickin' around Texas.
Seriously, think about the Wellsville weirdness. Everything in town is made by some Kreb-brand. There are villains named Open Face, Milk Moustache, Gravy Breath, Ink Stain, Outie, and Butt Stripe—named so because he always has mud on his pants from riding his bike in the rain. To compare something or someone to the Hoover Dam is the highest measure of praise. “Take a sponge bath, Hammerhead,” is a totally garden-variety insult. Little Pete got a large, racy tattoo of a seductive lady named Petunia when he was very young, and no one knows how or from where. Heck, both Wrigley sons are named Pete. It is weirdly what it is, and that’s what makes the show great.
“Valentine’s Day Massacre” is a great Pete And Pete episode, but that’s like saying pepperoni pizza is a great pizza. Of course it is. Like the saying goes, even bad pizza is good pizza, and the same goes for The Adventures Of Pete And Pete. And as T.V. Club will probably prove this summer—every Thursday at 2 p.m.!—there really is no bad Pete And Pete, and that’s a very good thing.