Cable TV Grows A Quirky Children's Show

A SOFT drink spills onto the floor of a school bus taking children on a field trip. Quickly the fluid turns into a carbonated tidal wave threatening to engulf all in its path.

A schoolboy stands in a meadow, microphone in hand, and makes like a nightclub singer, twirling his body and stylishly tilting his head as his voice resonates powerfully in some unseen sound chamber.

Happenings like these are not unusual on Nickelodeon's prize-winning series "The Adventures of Pete & Pete," a live-action show airing Sundays. It's about two brothers, played by Michael Maronna and Danny Tamberelli, both named Pete for mysterious reasons. The show's appealing strangeness is of the kind children don't get on national broadcast TV - commercial or public. The natural habitat for such goings-on is cable TV's Nickelodeon.

"Our adage is, 'It's a weird show, but no weirder than the average kid's childhood,' " says Will McRobb, who created the show with Chris Viscardi. They write and produce the series. "A lot of stuff from your childhood, if you think about it now, is pretty strange. But you didn't think so back then, you accepted it. The term we use around here is 'suburban tall tales.' "

Mr. Viscardi adds, "The kid point of view makes it perfect for Nick. And it's probably the only one that would air it."

He speaks from experience. A few years ago, ABC approached them to create a "Pete & Pete"-style show. ABC was enthusiastic, and the duo "worked and worked on the pilot, a live-action format with the same sensibility," Mr. McRobb says. The reaction? McRobb lapses into kid talk, like one of the "Pete & Pete" characters. "ABC is like 'O-o-h-h, wow, this is too much for us. We can't do this.' " It was simply too different.

Something else about "Pete & Pete" that probably wouldn't go down very well with network programmers is the way it tosses in literate phrases and allusions.

"We want to work on two levels," Viscardi says, "and sometimes that may hurt the show in terms of kids' acceptance. But we do want to appeal to adults." In a school-picnic episode, phrases like "deeper into the uncharted territory of our souls" are humorously tossed about.

This double-barrel attack has garnered the show an almost cult following among actors and other viewers, who discover a creative freedom not readily available on TV.

Judith Kaufman, a disc jockey in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., says "It has an almost psychedelic approach, things are almost surreal. As an adult I can appreciate everything about this, from the camera angles to the visual puns." In one episode, for example, a rock group of the "garage band" variety plays, in fact, in a garage.

Among the musicians in the group are real-life rockers Marshall Crenshaw and Syd Straw. Rock musicians and other celebrities often guest star, including "granddaddy of punk" Iggy Pop. He played a "Leave It to Beaver"-type father, cardigan and all.

The idea for the show came to McRobb and Viscardi when they worked in the Nickelodeon promotion department years ago. The first version was in 60-second spots to promote the channel's philosophy. "Our job was to get inside the kid head," McRobb recalls, "to think and speak as kids do and tell stories their way, which isn't very linear and has a stream-of-conscious feel to it." They experimented with the 60-second form for about two years, then in 1990 created the first of five "Pete & Pete" specials. The series was launched in 1993 and was just picked up for its third season.

A lot of kids will be glad.

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