31 Days of Hell: The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Halloweenie

The '90s were, in a way, the perfect decade to be a kid who loved Halloween. The Satanic Panic of the '80s was dying down, and taking with it some of the former backlash against the holiday, and the Mean World Syndrome paranoia that made parents in the 2000s hesitant to let their kids run around and celebrate it hadn't really kicked in yet. It was a time when Halloween was just... fun, and pretty much the unanimous favorite holiday of kids everywhere. 

We also had the totality of the great 1980s wave of horror films playing around the clock on cable, and readily available to rent on VHS for some seasonal viewing, and video store clerks who generally didn't care if kids were renting R-rated movies. The '90s were also an exceptionally good time for very clever, smart, not-just-for-kids kids' television, particularly in the first half of the decade, with the golden age of Nickelodeon. So it should be no surprise that these two attributes of this decade combined to give us possibly THE quintessential 1990s kids' Halloween special, the brilliant installment in The Adventures of Pete and Pete called Halloweenie.

While it may not always be the most immediately remembered among them (that distinction surely goes to Ren and Stimpy), The Adventures of Pete and Pete is almost certainly the greatest of the original batch of classic Nickelodeon shows. Its particular brand of surreal humor is both hilarious in its own right, and intelligent beyond the years of its ostensible target audience. It feels like a show that was written substantially for 90s kids when they grow up, to watch as adults and look back on with fresh eyes: its humor isn't “adult” like Ren and Stimpy's, but has a maturity and thoughtfulness to it which its viewers can appreciate a bit more once they hit adulthood, not to mention a whole lot of pop-cultural references and guest-starring actors who kids could have never appreciated. What kid in 1994 realized how awesome it was that Nona's dad was played by Iggy Pop, that Ellen's dad was Steve Buscemi, or that other supporting characters included Janeane Garofalo, JK Simmons, Chris Elliott, Adam West, Debbie Harry, Michael Stipe, and LL Cool J? Even the framing device of each episode – Big Pete (Michael Maronna) narrating the events from some undisclosed time in the future – makes the show extremely conducive to nostalgia, giving it a looking-back-on-your-childhood sensibility not unlike The Wonder Years. Factor in the show's uniquely bizarre, casually surreal humor, odd inside jokes (why is everything in Wellsville Kreb brand?), and truly excellent '90s alternative rock soundtrack, and you have a show that has not only aged really well, but has become even better as it has turned into a perfect time-capsule of its decade filtered through the eyes of youth.

The '90s - a simpler time when kids playing with dangerous power tools was
 totally acceptable, and the chroma key didn't have to be perfect.

There are a lot of brilliant episodes of The Adventures of Pete and Pete, but the finest episode of them all has to be Halloweenie. In just 25 minutes, the show manages to capture everything that makes Halloween the ultimate holiday for kids everywhere, in a way which is all at once very universal yet also very particular to what made 1990s Halloweens the best Halloweens of them all. This combination of universality and an uncanny ability to define its decade in a totally authentic, yet non-stereotypical and very off-center way is Pete and Pete at its finest. That it uses this style to capture the soul of a holiday just as whimsical and eccentric as the show itself is the icing on the cake. The episode follows the brothers Pete as they gear up for the big day: little Pete (Danny Tamberelli) with profound excitement, as Halloween is his favorite day of the year, and big Pete with dread, as he has grown to hate the holiday in his older teen years. In classic Pete fashion things quickly escalate to an absurd degree, as the brothers and their best friends Nona and Ellen are thrown into conflict with a gang of decoration-destroying teenage punks in jack-o-lantern masks, and the fate the holiday hangs in the balance.

Great moments in punk rock history.
This episode is a perfect example of what a genuinely very well-made show The Adventures of Pete and Pete was, for a modestly-budgeted series ostensibly intended for kids. Kids' channel sitcoms are not usually the paragon of cinematic production values, and never was this more true than in this era when such shows were often shot on tape, but Pete and Pete was filmed with great imagination and a decidedly cinematic eye which always made clear how dedicated creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi were to making genuinely great television, not just kids' television. The show (and this episode in particular) has a knack for strong visual gags and kinetic camerawork, and it carefully created an aesthetic that captured the soul of suburban Americana as seen through youthful eyes, rather than just taking place in that environment. Plus, the show was actually shot on film, and entirely on-location, giving the whole thing a much more polished, movie-like look than its studio-bound, shot-on-tape peers (though it is worth noting that while shot on film, it was then converted to and edited on video, so don't expect a blu-ray release).

And then there's a matter of the show's extremely distinctive soundscape: Pete and Pete probably made better use of music than any other Nick show, with an excellent soundtrack of then-contemporary alternative rock tunes, including a bunch of originals. One of the show's producers had previously worked in music videos, and had a large network of rock star friends and colleagues. That's how Michael Stipe, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, and LL Cool-J wound up guest-starring on the show, how Luscious Jackson wound up playing little Pete's school dance in season 3, and how the show got such a brilliant time-capsule soundtrack which captures its decade flawlessly. Songs from at least a dozen indie and alternative bands show up in various episodes (some, like Flowers by Chug, will forever sound like childhood to early-90s kids because of their prominence in the show), and a whole album's worth of original songs were written for the series by most of the musicians from Miracle Legion, recording as a side-project called Polaris. Halloweenie prominently features possibly the best Polaris song of the bunch (aside from, of course, their iconic theme song, Hey Sandy): the excellent Waiting for October, which likewise will forever sound like fall for those who grew up with this. Personally, I feel obligated to listen to the song and share it on Facebook towards the end of every September, as a welcome to autumn and Halloween. Of course, in keeping with this era of '90s alternative, the mumbly, hard-to-understand lyrics weren't considered all that important by the network, who just heard it as music, allowing Polaris to write a song for a kids show that, if you really listen, appears to be about the religious right bringing about the end of the world by nuclear war. But musically it is a perfect fit for the episode, the season, and the show at large, and having such a memorably poppy song with such subversive lyrics just adds to the only-in-the-90s awesomeness of the whole series.

Remember these jack-o-lantern designs
when '90s nostalgia comes around soon.
If you're in the mood for something a little different this Halloween, to take a break from the horror and venture into the realm of comedy and nostalgia, taking half an hour for Halloweenie is a must. Not only is it the quintessential reminder of why The Adventures of Pete and Pete is something truly special in the pantheon of classic-era Nickelodeon shows, it is also a fantastic time-capsule of the over-the-top joys of childhood Halloween, '90s style. Teenage punk troublemakers in jack-o-lantern helmets, trick-or-treating montages set to early-90s alt-rock, great original music with lyrics that probably aren't appropriate for a kids' show, Iggy Pop playing the best awkward suburban dad ever... a perfect recipe of audiovisual Halloween candy. Especially if you grew up any time around its era, this episode will definitely resonate. But even if you didn't, Pete and Pete is a series that genuinely does stand the test of time with its cleverness, wit, wild cast of guest-stars, and sly surrealism. Either way, this is one Halloween episode that absolutely belongs in your annual rotation.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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