“The Nightcrawlers” — originally aired December 12, 1993
As previously established both here in this column and on The Adventures Of Pete And Pete, being a kid is tough business. You have little to no autonomy — though you could argue that kids who get tattoos must have more than you did — and get little to no respect from your parents.
In fact, that whole “my mom/dad/every adult around me is a maroon” trope is a big theme in children’s media. Muppet Babies, for example, had “Nanny,” who, for all intents and purposes, was just a pair of legs. Rugrats had the wacky haired mom and unshaven dad who, somehow, never have any idea what sort of wacky hijinks their babies are up to. There’s no way that Claudia Kishi’s parents never knew she had metric tons of candy in her room in The Baby-Sitters Club.
That kind of parental shaming gets even worse when you’re dealing with shows meant for kids who are just a bit older, like Wizards Of Waverly Place or Nick’s hokey variety shows Roundhouse and All That. Adults just can’t handle the way kids want to be, man. They hate slime and kids love it. They just want to hold kids back from being free and driving cars. Parents just don’t understand.
Such is often the case with Don and Joyce Wrigley on Pete And Pete, though I’d go out on a limb here and say for the most part they do okay. Dad’s little tics in “King Of The Road” are weird, sure, but the kids love him all the same. When Mom was being driven insane by Phil Hickle’s hijacking of her metal plate? The kids really felt for her. That’s kind of the rule in these shows, though — Everyone can make fun of their own parents and run all over them, but step to another adult, and that’s not cool, man.
‘That is, of course, unless you’re going up against the evil International Adult Conspiracy, the group of grown-ups who conspire to buy two percent milk and tell their kids it’s whole milk or who set arbitrary bedtimes for 10-year-olds everywhere. That’s the premise behind this week’s episode, “The Nightcrawlers”: The injustice of Little Pete’s 9pm bedtime is just no longer acceptable to him. He thinks he’s missing out on valuable hours of the day that kids on the other side of the world are awake for. Hence, he formulates a plan to stay up for 11 straight days, breaking the Gibley’s world record set by Austrian housewife Bertha Van Houten in 1962. (That book, for all eagle eyes, was written by the fantastically named John and Martin Micmac.) Joyce uses reverse psychology, thinking Pete will never make it, but once he teams up with his crew — Artie, Clem, Purvis, Mort, Pink Eye, a young Heather Matarazzo as Natasha, and a couple other kids — they’re unstoppable.
Well, almost unstoppable. One by one, the Nightcrawlers fall victim to Somnis, the mighty god of sleep. Sure, they had their methods of avoiding slumber — Natasha pulled on her braids to keep her eyes open; Pink Eye ate Fig Newlies, which contained twice as much sugar as any other cookie; Libby stared into the sun, causing a sneeze that would blast the sleepiness right out of her — but one by one, they were vanquished. (Pink Eye fell victim to the “worst sugar rush since Glen Hoover ate 17 candy apples at Fireman’s Field Day.") Even Artie, the strongest man in the world, fell into a superhero dream state once his Krebstar radio ran out of batteries. And that’s when Pete gives up.
Here’s where it gets kind of sweet — cute sweet, not “dude, flashlight tag is sweet,” sweet. Mom steps in and catches Pete right before he gives up, just 53 minutes shy of his goal. After she admits that, maybe, she’s just worried about him growing up too fast, they agree on a new bedtime — 10:15 — and she becomes his witness to world record notoriety.
Here’s the part of the article where I say that The Adventures Of Pete And Pete does something really well, which, at this point would feel like an ever bigger cliché if it weren’t true. In the case of “The Nightcrawlers,” what it does well is not only convey that childhood sense of angst and oppression but also the sense that, sometimes at least, parents can be reasonable. If you make a good case by staying up for 11 straight days, they’ll work with you a little and set a later bedtime. Act like a jerk and rage against the parental machine with a tantrum, and you’re sleeping at 9pm forever, buddy. Sure, rule changes can turn into a slippery slope, like the International Adult Conspiracy has feared, but if kids are reasonable and adults are reasonable, then everything should turn out reasonably well. Change is inevitable, and as long as you ease into it, then it will be alright.
That kind of “hey, here’s why adults do the things they do” message is just another example of why Pete And Pete just works. They have a couple core mantras to get across — it’s okay to be weird, not every adult is against you, and so on — but the way they lay those messages on isn’t insanely heavy. Sure, there might be an International Adult Conspiracy of people who are jerks, but Artie’s an adult, and he’s not a jerk. Bus driver Stu’s an adult and he’s alright, albeit a little anger-driven. Even Don and Joyce Wrigley, when later faced with sticking with their kids or going whole hog with the evil adults, go with their kids because they know it’s the right thing to do. And, really, isn’t that the message all kids TV should convey? Do what’s right, no matter what? Thank God for Pete And Pete, though, because unlike so many other shows, they managed to get that point across without shameless pandering.
• This week’s Little Pete A+ insult: “Wax my nosehair!”
• For some reason, I remember this episode appearing much, much, later. I think it’s because I’d watched the shorts and specials 9000 times so when the season actually started, it seemed like I’d been waiting forever for anything. The same goes for “Tool and Die,” coming up in two weeks. I feel like Endless Mike didn’t show up until so much later — and when did Big Pete really get so enmeshed in High School?
• In the beginning of this episode, Big Pete wears a striped shirt that I also owned. I remember being very, very proud of this fact, and not at all ashamed that I was wearing a shirt made for men that must have been much too large for me.
• There are a ton of good Artie lines in this episode, including “So young, so brave, so sleepy,” and “Sleep is for the puny.” I particularly like “I don’t believe you can catch me for I am super freaky.”
• It’s so weird that Clem grows an awkward looking beard in nine days, though this would be a good place to point out a mind-blowing fact I learned doing research for this series earlier this summer: Aaron Schwartz, the actor who played Clem, has buffed up and aged well and now plays “Vanya,” the Russian doorman on Gossip Girl.
• Shoutout to prop crew member and frequent commenter on these articles Dan Fisher. The wallpaper in the scenes where the adults phone each other was inspired. Here’s hoping you had a hand in that.