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Summer Is All Too Fleeting in the Quintessential Episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete

The recent I Saw the TV Glow communes with the melancholy spirit of a Nickelodeon classic.
  • Danny Tamberelli, Michael C. Maronna, and Frank Gifford in The Adventures of Pete & Pete (Photo: Nickelodeon/courtesy of Everett Collection)
    Danny Tamberelli, Michael C. Maronna, and Frank Gifford in The Adventures of Pete & Pete (Photo: Nickelodeon/courtesy of Everett Collection)

    Is I Saw the TV Glow the first major motion picture to claim SNICK as an influence? No kidding, there are moments in Jane Schoenbrun’s haunting suburban whatsit — one of the most hypnotic and singular movies of the year so far — that seem beamed straight from a block of live-action Nickelodeon programming. The film follows a lonely teenager (Justice Smith) who becomes obsessed with a cult Saturday-night series called The Pink Opaque, a YA-inflected supernatural soap onto which he deflects his unarticulated, unresolved dysphoria.

    Though the credit font of this fictional show is lifted from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the vibes sometimes trend towards Twin Peaks, the true point of reference is much less hip: Just as Smith’s Owen romantically inflates The Pink Opaque in his head, so does the movie uncannily distort the campfire training-wheels horror of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and the teen-superhero melodrama of The Secret World of Alex Mack.

    Schoenbrun actually seems to have drawn inspiration from one show in particular — in fact, one episode of one show. The first clue is TV Glow’s bewitching opening shot: a slow push down a darkened residential street, towards the inviting luster of an ice-cream truck filling the summer air with its distant, carnivalesque siren call. If that image alone doesn’t give ’90s kids a pang of déjà vu, later glimpses of Opaque depicting a character with a wafer cone for a head should do the trick. These references feed into the larger tonal tribute of the movie, whose searching melancholia recalls nothing more potently than the Mr. Tastee episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete, the beloved coming-of-age sitcom that aired on Nick in the mid-’90s.

    Pete & Pete, whose now middle-aged stars have a wordless cameo in TV Glow, was special. No rose-colored glasses are necessary to recognize that it was in a whole different league than its SNICK time-slot neighbors — a richer, wiser, sadder relic of children’s TV. The show was a small-town picaresque built around the relationship between two brothers: rebellious, impulsive tween Little Pete (Danny Tamberelli) and the more wistful, teenaged Big Pete (Michael Maronna), whose fourth-wall-breaking narration framed most episodes. The comedy was at once absurdist and quotidian, mixing Seinfeldian insights about the injustices of adolescence with surreal running gags. Creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi steeped the series in a certain Gen X ennui, beginning with the indelible alt-rock themes of house band Polaris. But the sensibility wasn’t ironic: Beneath the oddball laughs was a touching interest in the way the weird fascinations of childhood give way to the disappointments of adulthood.

    In that respect, "What We Did On Our Summer Vacation" might be the quintessential Pete & Pete episode. Certainly, if one wanted to make a case for the emotional intelligence of the show, they’d be hard-pressed to find a better illustration. Written by McRobb, the episode was originally conceived as one of five specials that aired between ’91 and ’93, before Nickelodeon ordered Pete & Pete to series; it was later recut and slotted into the first season. Executives at the cable network must have seen a strong proof of concept in the installment, which exemplifies the stealth appeal of Pete & Pete: the way the show could hook a young audience with inspired kookiness, then sneak up on you with some aching truth about the American adolescent experience.

    The episode revolves around Mr. Tastee, an ice-cream truck driver who — in a typical bit of Pete & Pete absurdism with deeper reservoirs of meaning — never takes off his oversized, smiling, cone-shaped headwear. Mr. Tastee, Big Pete tells us, arrives on the first hot day of the year, and departs with the first nip of autumn. In that way, he’s like a mascot of summer for the boys, the season personified. He also becomes a symbol of the adult world, with its mysteries and duties and restrictions.

    Like a lot of the best episodes of the series, "What We Did On Our Summer Vacation" is crammed with delightful non sequiturs and side adventures: Little Pete’s annual tradition of racing a friend down a hill on a block of ice; the almost certainly neurodivergent town superhero Artie (Toby Huss, of King of the Hill and Halt and Catch Fire fame) climbing a water tower to battle his archnemesis, a queen bee; the boys’ father (Hardy Rawls) using a metal detector to unearth a 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme at the beach. These little vignettes of silliness orbit the main storyline, in which the Petes and best pal Ellen (Alison Fanelli) become obsessed with befriending and learning the true identity of Mr. Tastee — a crusade that becomes a missing-person mystery once their invasive prying seems to scare him off.

    The notion that ice-cream men have a secret code of anonymity, closely guarding all details of their private life as a rule, is one of those perfect bits of kid logic that the show often exploited. (R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe appears in an amusing cameo as a fellow cold-sweet peddler, confirming it was our heroes’ nosiness that drove Mr. Tastee out of town.) On Pete & Pete, the adult world is this vast realm of secret laws and conspiracies that kids could never hope to unravel. The idea is an exaggeration of the normal childhood curiosity about grownups. It’s a universal rite of passage to eventually realize that your parents, your teachers, and all the other adults looming over your life have lives of their own, and problems and flaws and fears, too.

    It was smart to build the show around a four-year age gap between the brothers. It made Pete & Pete both relatable to its target demographic and a preview of what life might have in store for the kids watching. So much of the series found tension in the clash of perspectives between a rambunctious preteen experiencing all the anarchic joys of childhood and a teenager suddenly finding those feelings harder to access. "What We Did On Our Summer Vacation" makes that transition explicit: With the sudden absence of Mr. Tastee, Little Pete gets his first bittersweet taste of growing up, and the way that the simple pleasures of young life can fade like daylight.

    What lingers most in "What We Did On Our Summer Vacation" is the melancholy. The episode opens with one of Big Pete’s signature monologues, this one relating how Little Pete and Artie always end the summer by raging impotently against the ocean, waging pointless battle against the fleeting nature of the warmer weeks. “They’re not crazy,” Big Pete says. “Just angry. Angry that the summer has to end. I know exactly how they feel. Every year, it feels like the summer is over about 10 seconds after it began.” That’s a sentiment to which most kids can relate. And the season only shrinks as you grow older, time moves faster, and the responsibilities of life intrude upon a stretch of the calendar year that once felt more carefree, like it belonged to you.

    Ephemerality is what the episode is really about. It was a key theme of Pete & Pete. See “Hard Day’s Pete,” in which Little Pete hears a band playing a song he instantly loves, only to fail to track down any recording of the tune, which slowly disappears from his memory. Or “Halloweenie,” when Big Pete struggles with the realization that his trick-or-treat days may be behind him. In "What We Did On Our Summer Vacation,” the Petes accidentally speed up the impermanence of summer with an exploratory inquiry into the private life of their hero, Mr. Tastee. In a way, they shrink not just summer but childhood itself.

    Of course, Pete & Pete has become more ephemeral, too. It’s not available on any streaming service, which means those hoping to watch the show today have to pony up for a used copy of the out-of-print DVD releases of the first and second seasons, hunt for episodes on YouTube, or turn to torrenting. Even then, the full adventures of the sibling duo remain out of reach. The original cut of "What We Did On Our Summer Vacation" — the slightly longer version, featuring music by R.E.M., Poi Dog Pondering, Ministry, and more — hasn’t aired on TV for ages, and wasn’t on the DVD or VHS releases, probably because of issues licensing its music. Most copies now circulating, even via bootleg means, are of the Season 1 recut. Today, “Summer Vacation” in its original form is effectively considered “lost media” — a sadly poetic fate for an episode of TV about how nothing beautiful lasts.

    Waxing so romantic about that episode, or any other, risks distorting the truth about Pete & Pete. Can its melancholia be overstated? It was still a children’s show, albeit an unusually mature and sensitive one. It was funnier than it was sad most weeks, smuggling insights in the form of daft comic premises — the looney scavenger hunts and family power struggles that characterized its kid-friendly sitcom farce.

    But the show’s wistfulness about the passage of youth is not a mirage or a false memory. If anything, that element looms even larger through the eyes of adulthood. There’s a scene in I Saw the TV Glow where Owen rewatches The Pink Opaque as an adult and can’t see what he ever saw in it — a moment that speaks to either the way we misremember childhood favorites or the way we suppress the part of ourselves that once connected to them. But no such rude awakening awaits those who revisit "What We Did On Our Summer Vacation.” It remains as a fan might remember it: a lament that the purest joys in life tend to fade away, nestled within a TV episode whose own joys haven’t.

    A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.