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“Space, Geeks, and Johnny Unitas” (pilot season, episode 2; originally aired June 2, 1991)

Close call alert: Last week’s assertion that there are no bad episodes of Pete And Pete nearly burned me this week with “Space, Geeks, and Johnny Unitas,” the second stand-alone episode that Nickelodeon aired. Thankfully, it does just enough to dodge that bullet.

Centered around the end of the school year—hence the reason Nickelodeon ordered it, presumably—the episode focuses on Big Pete and Ellen’s struggle to write their final papers, avoid summer school, and solve the big mysteries of the universe. All this hinges on the introduction of a new one-off character, Joe Jones, a kid in their class who showed up in December right after an unexplained sonic boom, has chronic static cling, and smells like steamed vegetables. There’s even a rumor going around school that his cowlick always points magnetic north.

Long story short-ish, Joe convinces Ellen and Pete to change their science papers from their assigned topics to, respectively, the search for alien life in Wellsville and something called “Johnny U and the universe,” which ostensibly focuses on the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. The game, which was won in stunning fashion by the Colts—helmed by Johnny Unitas—would just be airing in 1991 in the Alpha Centuri star system, 365 billion miles away from Earth, and both Joe and Big Pete have an affinity for Unitas. As it turns out, Joe Jones is an alien, saw the game on his home planet, and he tells the duo all his secrets—off camera, of course—but really, what he is, at least according to Ellen, is a friend. (Aw!) Pete and Ellen end up doing time in summer school, but that’s fine by them. At least they were true to themselves.

The episode itself is a little clunky overall, save a few Artie moments. Little Pete’s personal superhero was introduced in the Nickelodeon shorts that predated the series, but he really gets a chance to go to town here, dancing a lunar ballet at the planetarium, helping Pete win death dodge ball, and taking Ellen’s alien test while bench-pressing a desk with just one arm. There are other highlights, like a shot of a Golden Retriever smoking a pipe during a discussion of how the animals have been acting strange since Joe arrived, but if this episode were pizza, it would be Little Caesars. It’s totally acceptable grub, and a hot-n-ready is a good value at $5, but yeah, there’s a lot better pizza—and Pete—to be had.

One thing this episode—and most of Pete And Pete, for that matter—does well, though, is reiterate the idea that we, as kids and as viewers, aren’t alone. While all his classmates are into Randall Cunningham, Pete’s into Johnny Unitas because he saw a picture of him in a book and thought he looked like he “played each game as if the fate of the entire universe depended on him and him alone.” That’s some heavy shit for a junior high kid, but it’s more the idea that we can focus on here: As weird as he is, Pete’s still got friends, and he’s got family, and he’s cool for who he is. Everything will turn out all right for him just like that, and he doesn’t need to bail on Johnny U—or Artie or his little brother or band or whatever—to be just fine.

It’s a lesson that’s reiterated over and over and over again on Pete And Pete in, really, almost every line uttered or decision made. And that’s one of the reason the show succeeds, not only for us as adults watching it today but for kids back then and for a network like Nickelodeon. There’s a canon of what kids want to see and what’s “healthy” for them to see. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fights don’t get much of a positive message across, but kids making their own decisions and doing what they want—within reason—that’s something that really flies. Parents don’t mind their kids watching a show like that, and kids are reassured watching it. There’s a line, of course, between something like Pete and total anarchy like The Suite Life Of Zach And Cody, but that’s why one show presumably stands the test of time and the other gives grown-ups headaches.

It might seem like as an ex-nerd, let’s say, or an ex-outcast, that no one understood you like Clarissa or Pete did. That might be absolutely true, but one of the reasons that shows like Pete And Pete or a lot of the stuff that aired on SNICK saw such wide success is not just because there were far too many kids getting pushed around and rejected but rather because every kid—from the football captain to the offbeat girl who always has a cast on her arm—felt at least a little out of it, a little like he or she was faking it just a little to get by. Kids can be a tough crowd, and especially around the Petes’ age, it gets just a little worse. Kids that were entirely okay with themselves, like Little Pete, were anomalies, and that’s why they were such role models. They were who they were, and they were who we wanted to be—and hopefully are, at least a little bit, today.