The Time Traveler’s Life

Kevin Nguyen discusses one of the classic time-travel tales of all time: an episode of The Adventures of Pete and Pete about Daylight Saving Time.

An essay from Chuck Klosterman’s newish book Eating the Dinosaur deconstructs the various philosophical conflicts from pop culture’s most familiar time-travel tales, from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine to Back to the Future to Donnie Darko (there’s even a sharp dissection of the heady indie thriller Primer). At the end, he identifies a common thread between them:

[There] is a consistent theme in stories about traveling to the future: Things are always worse when you get there… People who want to travel through time are A) unhappy and B) unwilling to compromise anything about who they are. They would rather change every element of society except themselves.

It’s a simple yet surprising connection, applicable to most time travelers, no matter their metaphysical dilemma. And though I’m sure there are other exceptions, the one that came to me immediately was from The Adventures of Pete and Pete. In fact, I believe the episode “Time Tunnel” is one of the greatest time-travel stories ever.

Pete and Pete was a largely underrated Nickelodeon show from the mid-’90s. The show starred two brothers named Pete Wrigley — Big Pete and Little Pete — who lived in an ordinary town with a number of eccentric townsfolk. It had an endearing, offbeat sense of humor, and a long list of hip cameos from people like Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Janeane Garofalo, Adam West, and R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe as Captain Scrummy the ice cream man.

As “Time Tunnel” reveals, it turns out time travel doesn’t require gravitational time dilation or flux capacitors after all. No, we all time travel, every year, on Daylight Saving Time. Big Pete explains, “On that famous hour-sucking day, you get to time travel. In the spring, you spring forward; but in the fall, you fall back. That means at midnight, you get to go back in time and relive the same hour twice.”

He continues, “But this year, I just forgot. I had more important things on my mind than traveling into the past; I was thinking about the future.”

Big Pete is talking about his first date with his best friend, Ellen Hickle. Their romance isn’t quite like Kevin Arnold’s eerie obsession with Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years, but it’s a big deal in the realm of Pete and Pete. In the tradition of TV adolescence, Pete gets nervous about the date and solicits advice from the school bully, “Endless” Mike Hellstrom. Mike offers some hormonally misguided advice to help Pete make a move on Ellen: go to the drive-in, put the top up on the convertible to create a “cocoon of love,” and when the time is right time, press the GO button, which drops the seat backs to the makeout position.

“Welcome to the future, Pete Wrigley,” Mike says. “Don’t blow it.”

Pete, of course, blows it by following all of Mike’s coaching. Ellen gets offended and storms off before the movie is over, and Pete is left feeling sorry for himself. So much for the future.

This is when Little Pete shows up to remind his older brother that it’s Daylight Saving Time and that he still has a chance to undo the damage he’s done to his friendship with Ellen. (“You’ve got one hour to do one thing you’ve always wanted to do. So go do it you nimrod!”)

Big Pete chases Ellen down and apologizes for the way he behaved on the date, declaring that he just wants to go back to the way things were, to just be friends again. Pete’s time traveling doesn’t change what’s already happened; instead he apologizes for it. Pete and Ellen make up, and even make out a little.

It’s surprising how time-travel stories rarely feature a protagonist that goes back in time to make amends for something he’s done. Instead, it’s often about making a mistake, like stepping off the path in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” or erasing one, like its popular Simpsons parody when Homer gets his hand caught in a time-traveling toaster. But really, that’s not concerned with the past, but the future. Like Klosterman observes, there’s a certain selfishness involved with time travelers. We want to repair our problems to avoid dealing with the consequences later.

High school is certainly a place where we become focused on the future. Like Big Pete, we want to be adults as soon as possible, and we need to see where we’re going. In fact, adolescence might be the moment when we stop living in the present.

Every year when I’m enjoying that extra hour of sleep Daylight Saving Time grants me, all I can think about is how I’ll lose it again in the spring.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.