Loren Bouchard isn't a celebrity cartoon maker with the same degree of public recognition enjoyed by the likes of Matt Groening, Seth MacFarlane, or even Trey Parker. In some ways, this works to his advantage with a certain type of audience. Bouchard's work has a certain kind of connoisseur appeal: to the pop culture epicure, the cult hit is almost always more interesting than the smash sensation, and Bouchard has built a successful (albeit somewhat quiet) career around cult hits. His current show Bob's Burgers usually gets fewer viewers than the shows with which it shares Fox's Animation Domination block (Zombie Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad), but a quick Google search for "best TV shows 2013" suggests more critics have Bouchard's work on their minds than MacFarlane's or Groening's.
Such was the case with Home Movies, which even the A.V. Club—one of the most enthusiastic Bob's Burgers advocates—snubbed in its "Best TV Series of the '00s" roundup. Co-created by Bouchard and musician/comedian Brendon Small under Tom Snyder's Soup2Nuts studio (basically a rebranding of TSP's animation wing), Home Movies is a true cult classic. It aired for a few years, was enjoyed by a small but loyal consortium of fans, and ignored by the rest of the world. TV ratings from 2001–2004 aren't easy to come by, so I can't comment on how well it actually performed compared to the other shows on Adult Swim. Anecdotally speaking, I remember that the friends of mine in college who caught every episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force never, ever made a point of watching Home Movies; overviews of Adult Swim run by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Hollywood.com in 2002 don't even mention Home Movies; Adult Swim moved its time slot around while hedging on twelve-minute ATHF-esque absurdism for its original programming alongside its Family Guy and Futurama rebroadcasts. Home Movies never really stood much of a chance; it is very lucky to have lasted as long as it did, and it's a bona fide miracle that it didn't just blink out of existence forever after its unwatched five-episode UPN run in 1999.
I've said before that Home Movies is my favorite television cartoon of all time, and after cruising through it again for the first time in maybe two years, I can't find any reason to say I like it any less than before.
I won't deny there's some nostalgia at play. Home Movies is one of the few TV shows (except maybe for Young Justice) that I followed pretty much from beginning to end. I distinctly remember catching an episode during its fugacious UPN appearance in 1999. I started dating my first girlfriend in 2001, right around the same time the Adult Swim experiment began; Home Movies was our favorite show, and I watched it at her place every Sunday night. Even now I can't watch the first two seasons without thinking fondly back to that time in my life—which is strange, since 2001–2002 wasn't that great a time for me overall (or for most people in the New York area, really). Remembering those nights in Sparta, New Jersey, watching Home Movies with the girl I loved then is enough to fool me into believing that the months after 9/11 were actually a fine time to be alive.
But it isn't just nostalgia. Like Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Home Movies is kind of a freak: conspicuously incongruous with the other popular cartoons and sitcoms of its time, less in tune with its contemporaries than with what arrived afterward—more focused on idiosyncratic conversations between characters than with hammering out zinger after zinger.
Having sprung from the success of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist like Athena from the head of Zeus, Home Movies—especially at the beginning—owes much of its design ethos to its predecessor. Its use of Squigglevision is an unmistakable visual link; its plodding, tension-free plots, cobbled together from scenes of retroscripted dialogue, are a compositional one. And there are the shared characteristics between the shows' premises: Dr. Katz is a show about a divorced man, his underachieving adult son, and their close, candid relationship; Home Movies features a divorced woman and her precocious eight-year-old son, who have an unusually frank relationship.
But Dr. Katz, as we have seen, is a peep into a world in abeyance. Nothing ever happens within Dr. Katz's existential radius, and nothing ever changes—and, however imperfect or even far from ideal, it's still rather cozy.
With that said—even though it might be poor form, and against my better judgment—I think the best way to cover Home Movies here is chronologically: to follow its development by singling out individual episodes from each of its four seasons and putting them under the glass. It's hard to talk about Home Movies as a whole, since it changes so radically from season to season.
But first: let's look at the characters. Home Movies has a fairly extensive cast, so we'll just look at the ones who were present from the beginning.
The precocious writer/director of some 500 films. Eight years old. Asthmatic and ratlike. Not much a fighter or a lover. Doesn't do well in school; sucks at soccer. Egotistical. Often myopic. Has problems with authority. Voiced by, uh, Brendon Small. (I surmise that naming the protagonist after the person voicing him is an artifact from the Dr. Katz days.) Just so there's no confusion later on, "Brendon" will refer to the cartoon character, while "Small" will refer to the writer/actor/comedian/musician.
Coach John McGuirk
Coaches Brendon and Melissa's soccer team. Thirty-eight years old. Doesn't know how to play soccer. Doesn't do well with children. Has a drinking problem. Lonely. Angry. Out of shape. Not a very good coach, date, handyman, actor, lawyer, babysitter, or role model. Voiced by pathological scene stealer H. Jon Benjamin.
Brendon's best friend and accomplice. Eight years old. A much better student than Brendon, but perhaps an even worse soccer player. Actress and camera operator. Generally a sweetie, but ready to resort to violence when necessary (and sometimes when it isn't). Voiced by Melissa Bardin Galsky, a TSP/Soup2Nuts vet who had worked behind the scenes on Dr. Katz and Science Court.
Actor. Seven years old. Currently in a 34,000-picture deal with Brendon. Naive. Perceptive. Bullying target. Doesn't practice very good hygiene. Not a good runner. Candy monster. Voiced by the ever-versatile H. Jon Benjamin.
Divorced working mom with OCD and two kids. Does the best she can under harried circumstances. Hasn't been intimate with a man in nearly two years. Doesn't handle job interviews or parent-teacher conferences very well. Supportive of Brendon's filmmaker ambitions, but sometimes worries about his brains. Voiced by Paula Poundstone playing herself in the first five episodes; voiced by Janine Ditullio for the remainder of the series.
Divorced real estate agent with a corny sense of humor. Loving father to Melissa. Reluctant(?) buddy to Coach McGuirk. Needs a woman. Needs a woman bad. Voiced by Jonathan Katz, whose voice I can never get sick of.
Okay. So let's get to it...
(Postscript: this post demonstrates why I need an editor.)
Get Away From My Mom
The first season of Home Movies is actually two seasons. The first five episodes aired on UPN in 1999, and the show was canned pretty much immediately. The remaining eight were apparently made later on, on Cartoon Network's tab. Adult Swim began by showing these eight episodes first, and looped back to the "UPN five" afterwards. You can understand their reasoning: not unlike season-one Simpsons, the first episodes of Home Movies are charming, but also rather rough. For years, they were my least favorite, and I tended to skip over them whenever I revisited the series.
But having just concluded a Dr. Katz binge, I have a newfound appreciation for the UPN five: they're the second-closest thing we're ever going to get to more Dr. Katz episodes. (The closest would be this.) Pretty much all the content is retroscripted, the stories are jerry-rigged, and the tone is generally loose and laid back.
Like any episode of Dr. Katz, "Get Away From My Mom" is a bunch of unscripted scenes slapped together, but the stitches of its patchwork are much more visible. Dr. Katz was uniquely able to function without scripts because it had very few characters, deliberately avoided stories in which anything happened, could kill time with on-the-couch content, and used the motions of its protagonist's workweek as scaffolding. Without this self-imposed structure, the UPN five are characterized by a kind of eventful amorphousness that isn't found anywhere in Dr. Katz or in the rest of Home Movies.
Right. In the first five episodes, Paula Poundstone plays Brendon's mother. Paula Small isn't just named after Poundstone; the character (single mother with a lot on her plate) is entirely based on her, as she mentions herself in a 2006 NPR inverview:
[Caller]: Yeah. I was just wondering, I really love that character, and although you only played the voice for part of the first season, how much do you think that that character really kind of reflected on you at all? Because she was kind of like the single mom, you know, comedic type. So I was just wondering that.
[Poundstone]: It was me. The way it came about is I used to do a show with the same company called “Science Court.” It aired on ABC, it was an animated show. And when I would come into the studio to tape my part of it, invariably I had just come from some sort of, you know, some sort of personal drama somewhere or whatever.
And so I would always vent for several minutes before I would begin to read my part of the script into the microphone. And the director [Bouchard] would listen and laugh and, you know, sort of egg me on. And one day he said, you know, do you mind if I tape some of this, and from that he used that as the character for the show.
Given that the problems in her personal life were hitting their peak around 2001, it's little surprise that Poundstone didn't reprise her role when Cartoon Network commissioned Soup2Nuts to complete Home Movies' first season. She wasn't missed terribly—there really aren't any Poundstone vs. Ditullio debates among Home Movies fans, as far as I know. Janine Ditullio is the definitive Paula Small because she's in 90% of the episodes, and in all of the ones that are typically considered the series' best. Still, watching the Poundstone episodes again, I wonder what the series would have looked like if she had stayed on? One convention exclusive to the UPN five are scenes in which Paula is performing some domestic chore with a phone to her ear, performing what are essentially short monologues in the vein of Poundstone's standup shtick. These scenes contribute a lot of texture to Paula Small's character and to the viewer's sense of the Small household, and Ditullio's milder Paula never really does anything in the same vein.
So, this is Home Movies' humble beginning: right from the get-go, you know it's going to have to be an acquired taste. My sense is that the majority of Home Movies fans tend to skip it over when they bring out the DVDs on a rainy day. It's clunky, it's unbalanced, it's not really sure what it's trying to go for. But the moments of unscripted brilliance in "Get Away From My Mom"—like Brendon's heart-to-heart with McGuirk ("it's gonna be like a friggin' hurricane"), Erik's duck game, and the unhinged artless insanity of Brendon's "Dark Side of The Law" films—were only possible because of the unrestricted spontaneity that produced them, and as Home Movies evolves and becomes more scripted, these sorts of scenes become increasingly rare.
Episode 6. The was the first Home Movies episode to air on Adult Swim; think of it as the first installment of season 1.5.
A lot has changed. Brendon and Coach McGuirk seem to get along a little better. Paula Small is an entirely different person. Jason is more sensitive and perceptive in addition to being gross, and Melissa is more assertive and her voice is less pitch-shifted. On the production end of things, this is the first episode in which Science Court star Bill Braudis comes on as a writer, a job he shares with Small. From here on out, Home Movies starts to rely on a mixture of traditional scripting and retroscripting in order to preserve the show's authentic conversational tone while permitting more adroitly-structured plots.
Overall, "Director's Cut" was a much better choice for introducing Adult Swim viewers to Home Movies than "Get Away From My Mom," thanks in large part to the bizarre brilliance of the Franz Kafka rock opera, the centerpiece of the episode. "Director's Cut" is also the first episode in which fifteen-year-old metalhead Dwayne (voiced by Small) and his band Scäb (come into focus. Earlier episodes have more or less established that Dwayne provides the music for Brendon's films; in "Director's Cut," he writes a rock opera based on The Metamorphosis, allowing Small to bring his musical talents more fully to bear on Home Movies.
Melissa and Jason would rather produce Dwayne's rock opera than work with Brendon's latest script about an absurd fictional meeting between Louis Braille and Louis Pasteur titled "Louie, Louie." His ego wounded, Brendon alienates himself from his only friends. This makes "Director's Cut" the first Home Movies episode with any kind of emotional stake. Watching Brendon act so awfully is uncomfortable: not only out of fremdscham, but because of how easy it is to imagine ourselves reacting more or less like Brendon under similar circumstances.
Finally, "Director's Cut" introduces parallel plotting to Home Movies—a tool it will get a lot of mileage out of later on. While Brendon is slowly melting down over his jealousy towards Dwayne, Coach McGuirk beings to resent his new assistant coach Drew, who connects better with the kids, helps them win games, and makes him look fat and incompetent. The two stories briefly overlap turning a sidelines conversation where Brendon and McGuirk begin thinking out loud together, plotting revenge on their rivals. Brendon eventually takes the high road, reconciling with his friends and agreeing to work on Dwayne's rock opera, while McGuirk takes the low road with a scheme to spraypaint obscenities on the school and frame Drew. (Naturally, it blows up in his face.) Now that episodes are being drafted in advance, Home Movies stories begin to assume a smooth thematic symmetry.
Mortgages and Marbles
Brendon's adopted baby sister Josie is more or less the same character Maggie Simpson was before she became some kind of wunderkind in later seasons: a mute, mostly inert object that sits in the background and reacts subtly to what's going on around her. "Mortgages and Marbles" is the first and only Home Movies episode in which Josie has any real relevance to the plot: she sticks a pair of marbles up her nostrils while playing with Brendon, prompting a hospital visit and inspiring Brendon to make an educational Sesame Street-style film to teach young children not to put marbles in their nose. The final product has a few bugs: there are some problems with the puppet and some editing glitches, and the film has the inexplicable effect of compelling viewers to put marbles in their noses. (The sequence somehow reminds me of a personal incident involving Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue and LSD-25.)
"Mortgages and Marbles" is an unusual episode because Brendon and his filmmaking comprise the B-plot, while top billing is given to Coach McGuirk and Erik, who pal around through a doomed exploration into McGuirk's real estate options. When Home Movies first aired I had never seen Dr. Katz, and was unaware that McGuirk and Erik's voice actors had once starred opposite each other in another TV series. I imagine it must have been really exciting for old Dr. Katz fans to see Benjamin and Katz paired up again.
Erik: I'm in real estate.
McGuirk: So you're rich.
Erik: No, I'm being earnest when I say Erik.
McGuirk: I mean, you have a lot of money?
Erik: I do okay. I mean, business is good; this is a seller's market.
McGuirk: Well, that's good, because I'm thinking about buying a house.
Erik: That's good, it's a buyer's market.
It's been said that Dr. Katz and Home Movies are the sitcom equivalents of a jazz or a jam bands, and I'm at a loss for a more apt comparison. A lot of sitcom writing is composed somewhat similar to the way a pop song is put together. Pop songs are typically Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus; the comedy analog to this is Setup-Punchline-Setup-Punchline. A jam band doesn't have a destination; it eschews the formulated peaks and valleys of pop, and opts to just wander about and go wherever it finds itself going. The retroscripted dialogue in Dr. Katz and Home Movies is much the same: there's no barrage of zingers, punchlines, and putdowns; and there are often fewer guffaw-eliciting moments than in more conventional sitcoms. But what this style offers is funny conversations rather than just setups and payoffs; and there's a great pleasure in following uncontrived human speech, in hanging on to the conversations of very funny, very charming people who aren't always sure where their back-and-forth is taking them.
Law and Boarder
Scäb's latest hit, "Don't Kill Children" (coming right off the heels of "Don't Put Marbles in Your Nose").
This is the episode in which Brendon proves his cred as a young badass. After getting hit by car, the battered and bandaged Brendon is summoned to juvenile court to stand trial for riding his bike on the wrong side of the road and causing the accident. The judge orders Brendon to write an essay detailing why what he did was wrong; Brendon uses the assignment to cast aspersions on the people who ran him over and piss off the judge. It doesn't end well for Brendon—but how often does it end well for anyone trying to take a stand? After getting slammed with community service and a court order to reimburse the people who ran him over for the damage to their car (which they ran him over with), the defiant Brendon declares to the judge that he has learned absolutely nothing from the whole experience (as close to a "go fuck yourself" as he can manage with his mom present).
"Law and Boarder" gives us some nice snapshots of Paula's unusually uncondescending relationship with her son. (Context: Paula's college pal Stephanie is visiting for a few days; one night she brings home some guy from a bar, waking everyone up and then keeping them up.)
Brendon: Am I that loud when I sleep?
Paula: You know, Brendon, learn a lesson from tonight: if you're ever a houseguest, don't bring strange men over.
Brendon: I can't make any promises.
Paula: Well, at least not trumpeteers. You know, it's funny. I remember her being a little less...gregarious.
Brendon: What, you mean like in the hips?
My lady friend once asked me what the point of an animated sitcom was (in her defense, she was never much into animation or TV cartoons), and this is just one example of what it can do that a live-action sitcom can't: it can allow a creator to have a show about kids without having to bother with child actors or worry about the appropriateness of the lines they're given.
I wonder if this episode was made before Cartoon Network commissioned Soup2Nuts for a second season? Were Bouchard, Braudis, and Small ever under the impression that this might be Home Movies' final episode?
The call is prompted by Brendon and crew winning a local Best Young Filmmakers award for their movie "Fat Her," a thriller about a journalist who unearths a government conspiracy while being hunted by an overweight woman with whom he had an affair (and also by another overweight woman with whom he maybe didn't have an affair). The episode looks more thoroughly at "Fat Her" than any other of the kids' films we've seen so far, and it doesn't disappoint. Children's art is beautiful, unselfconscious, and absolutely preposterous (if not deranged), and Home Movies very deftly captures its essence, particularly in the first couple of seasons.
If this was to be the episode on which Home Movies would retire, Coach McGuirk would have been conspicuously absent at the last fall of the curtain. His B-plot consists of his being forced to attend anger management therapy in order to keep his job, and he's got some very funny scenes with Mitch Hedburg's anger management therapist (Hedburg's final appearance in the series), who seems to specialize in making his patients even angrier. But McGuirk's story and Brendon's story are for the most part incongruous, and only overlap momentarily during a chat on the sidelines during a soccer game—as usual.
McGuirk: Brendon, a lot of guys become fathers and they don't know the first thing about being a father. [Pauses to shout at kid on soccer field, clearly straining to keep his cool.] Look. Brendon. I know you blame your father for a lot of things, and maybe it is all his fault. ...There you have it.
McGuirk: Anyway, don't make the same mistakes I made, or my father, or your father.
Brendon: Like what?
McGuirk: Well, like this morning I poured orange juice on my cereal.
In the end, McGuirk is able to swallow his rage just long enough to keep his job, while Brendon is able to beat back his anxiety long enough to pick up the phone and talk to his father. But it's noteworthy that at this point in the series, the crew evidently still understood McGuirk as a peripheral rather than a central character. But—could it be said that by remaining stationary in his personal development as Brendon strides into what may well be a new leg of his life's journey, McGuirk participates in the "finale" in his full capacity as a foil to Brendon?
...See? You see how easy it is to read into these sorts of things?!
Melancholy note: when Home Movies is considered as a whole, the Best Young Filmmakers award represents the peak of Brendon's movie-making career.
So Squigglevision is out; Macromedia Flash is in (a development I've always had mixed feelings about). Retroscripting is increasingly sidelined in favor of pre-drafted dialogue. Small has rewritten and rerecorded all of the theme music to sound quicker, snappier. But the biggest change is the shift away from episode-restricted stories to a continuous plot arc—or, rather, several individual plot arcs unfolding at their own paces throughout the season.
After viewing their latest film—a legal drama featuring an extended jazz fighting scene (which showcases the animators' complete withdrawal from the visual minimalism of Dr. Katz)—Brendon, Melissa, and Jason decide their work has hit a new low and agree to go on hiatus. Brendon and Melissa spend the first few days of their hiatus sulking, moping, and lurking, while Jason joins Walter and Perry (whose blossoming romance comprises yet another continuous season 2 subplot) in their cavorting and capering. (He gets sick of it pretty quickly.)
weird kid. (I'm sure we all knew at least one back in our school days.)
During the hiatus he meets and falls hard for Cynthia (voiced by Jen Kirkman), a slightly older girl who's a fan of Dwayne's band. Nothing happens; his impression on Cynthia is more or less neutral; she doesn't remember his name but she does notice him, and implies that she wouldn't mind getting to know him a little better. Brendon's crush on Cynthia isn't really silly so much as wincingly awkward and obviously destined for failure—and maybe too embarrassingly familiar to some of us.
Linda and Brendon just don't get along. At all. (Both act very childish when the other is around—but Brendon is the only one with an excuse for that.) Hoping to defuse the tension between the three of them, Andrew has them all attend group therapy.
I'm almost certain Home Movies is responsible for my fascination with biographical criticism: whenever I read a novel, I'm always curious as to what was going on in the author's life as it was being written, and I wonder how it managed to sneak into the pages without him or her noticing. (The scene where the therapist takes Brendon apart after watching a scene from his film about the shrinking President King should be a caution to the artist: you're always giving yourself away.)
Yet another season 2 arc follows Brendon's intention to make a science fiction epic. He announces his idea to some of the kids at Fenton's house in "The Party;" in "Impressions," he explores the origins of a pair of characters called Starboy (Brendon) and the Captain of Outer Space (Jason). In "History," we see "The Adventures of Starboy & The Captain of Outer Space" in its entirety—the first (and last) of Brendon's films we get to see from beginning to end.
Brendon's films get noticeably more sophisticated as the series progresses. You can still see the scotch tape and strings in "Starboy & The Captain of Outer Space," but Brendon, Jason, and Melissa have made an artform out of building sets out of cardboard boxes and construction paper. (An especially nice touch on the part of the animators: no matter how dense and detailed the backgrounds get, the basement stairs and windows are almost always visible in at least one shot of a given movie.)
I realize I've already once used the phrase "unhinged artless insanity" in reference to Brendon's work, but I can't think of any better way to describe the grotesque brilliance of "Starboy & The Captain of Outer Space." "History" is easily among the top three or five episodes in the whole series—though probably not a good one to start out on, since most of its impact comes from its inversion of the usual scheme of things in Home Movies: this time, the episode follows the film instead of the filmmaker.
Like Brendon, McGuirk progresses through a developmental arc in season 2. It's almost imperceptible, but it's there—he starts taking a shine to Brendon. In "History" he is expressly clear about his concern for Brendon's well-being—even though his motivations remain questionable and help is guaranteed to be ruinous.
Evidently, Andrew deemed it wise to start seeing his son without his fiancée present, so now he spends time with Brendon in the context of a pizza club—more or less a fustian way of saying "getting pizza and renting movies." (A nice touch: the only date marked on Brendon's calendar is the day he's meeting his dad.)
The Andrew/Brendon/McGuirk plot in "Pizza Club" is uncomfortable at moments, but silly all the way through. Its conclusion of Brendon/Cynthia arc is awkward and excruciating all the way through. Cynthia clearly wants nothing to do with Brendon after "Impressions," but he gives it one last try with her—and of course, he comes on too strong and acts high-strung and unnatural. (Side note: I'm pretty sure Brendon's hallucinations are a nod to the video for "Wishing" by A Flock of Seagulls.) By the time he publicly declares he's "fallen in like" with her, she doesn't even deign to give him a response.
Scäb footage he recorded at the battle of the bands, and sees himself focusing and zooming in on Cynthia. (I'd love to believe that Love Actually stole this little device from Home Movies.) It's as much a coming-of-age moment for Brendon as anything else that's happened so far; for some reason it reminds me of the end of "A&P" by John Updike—and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter...
"Pizza Club" is one of a special handful of Home Movies that anticipates what Bob's Burgers will be, achieving a near-perfect emotional consonance between silliness, sweetness, awkwardness, the joys and weirdness of family, and the sorrow of defeat.
As this is the season finale, there must necessarily be a tying up of remaining loose ends. Paula gets her job back through Kindler ex machina. Walter and Perry decide to get married someday. After a clusterfuck of a ceremony, Andrew and Linda tie the knot, and Linda is really a pleasantly surprisingly good sport about everything. Elthor just wants to stand on land, and he isn't afraid to say so. No real surprises in any of this—but then there's the McGuirk plot.
It's one of the strangest sequences in the series: a procession of scenes in which a nude Stephanie comes just short of flat out asking McGuirk to come fuck her while he deflects her advances with distraught small talk. Eventually, he shuffles out of the room without even taking off his jacket. And that's it. Nothing further. No explanations given.
I JUST WANT TO STAND ON LAND
Aside: This is as good a place as any to point out that Bouchard never wastes an opportunity to put wood thrush songs in the background of outdoor scenes. (One rare exception is in "Impressions;" when they're at the country club, a house wren can be heard instead.) I love it.
The term "jumping the shark" refers to an episode of Happy Days in which the Fonz literally performs a water ski jump over a live shark. In it strictest sense, it refers to the very moment in which a TV series (or pretty much anything else) inexorably changes for the worse.
"Shore Leave," the first episode of Home Movies' third season, does something that's a lot like jumping the shark. We'll get to that in the minute. First, a quick glance at something Small said in a 2005 interview with Bullz-Eye.com:
I do feel like the show really picks up at Season 3. We did the commentary tracks for it a few weeks ago, and it was just fun. It was the first time I found myself kind of watching and enjoying, rather than seeing the mistakes and things I’d like to go back and fix. But there are a few episodes where I really felt like we knocked it out of the park, where it felt like just a well-oiled machine....
The thing I liked, it wasn’t so much a story or anything, it was just how we did it. It was process. It was just making things happen faster and making stories work better, making things match up and line up and...like, we did a lot more inter-cut sequences, where several stories are coming together at certain points. And it’s always exciting and fun to watch that happen. But one of the episodes that kind of made us realize, “Hey, this is really going to the next level,” was an episode called “Shore Leave,” which was where Melissa joined this thing called the Fairy Princess organization, which was kind of like a Girl Scouts thing, except it’s more corporate driven, and then Brendon goes to have the worst weekend of his life at his friend Fenton’s house. And there’s a huge escape sequence where everyone helps each other escape from these horrible traps, and everyone just has the worst weekend ever, but we make it very big and fun and explosive and silly.
First: Brendon's sleepover with Fenton is another pitch-perfect conjuration of an experience from a suburban childhood: finding yourself committed, by way of parental interlocution, to a sleepover at the house of some kid you just really don't like. The basic personality of Fenton Mewely (voiced by Sam Seder) varies greatly throughout Home Movies, enabling him evoke not just one awful smug little whiny snot you used to know in elementary school, but every awful smug little whiny snot you used to know in elementary school
Second: Melissa's arc. I'm pretty sure the only thing close to a Melissa-centric plot in the first two seasons was season 1's "It Was Supposed to Be Funny," and it was still more focused on Brendon as he tried to get back on Melissa's good side. She has consistently been used as an accessory to Brendon: his studious, sweet, accommodating gal pal. Finally, we get to see her on her own and taking care of business herself. "Shore Leave" has her being dropped into the Fairy Princess Corporation compound against her will (after being signed up by a well-meaning Erik), where she's forced to run through sales drills at night and sell FPC merchandise in the mall during the day. But Melissa can only be pushed so far: she escapes the compound by blowing up a can of hairspray in the microwave and rappelling out the window during the confusion.
And then come the unlikely convergence: Brendon flees from the Mewley household (pursued by Fenton, in the grip of some kind of Freudian psychosis), Melissa runs away from the FPC compound, and they literally bump into each other. And Jason is right there when it happens. And then Coach McGuirk suddenly appears to drive the kids to safety. Not only does this seem cartoonishly improbable than any other narrative coincidence in the series so far, but there was once a time when Home Movies was one of the last cartoons I'd expect to see borrowing the rear light streak effects from Akira.
Any retroactive consensus on something considered to be a "true" classic glosses over any criticism the piece may have received during its own time. Example: from The Simpsons Archive, some 1993 fan reviews of "Homer Goes to College," an episode of The Simpsons which the A.V. Club calls one of the show's "finest and best-loved:
• I have realized that the show sucks now. Oh, it's not easy for me to say that, but come on, they're not putting any thought into anymore. Satire has been replaced with sight gags. The characters are losing their individual personalities. The storylines have become a series of non sequiturs....
• Nope, I don't think I liked it much. If I had to pick two adjectives to describe this episode, they would be "disjointed" and "surreal".... Rating: D.
And from the venerable Home Movies Super Site (a preserved example of the classic internet fan page) some old fan reviews of "Bad Influences:"
• While the visuals are at their peak, the writing is sharp, and the characters are funny, the premise and execution are just far too over-the-top. I laughed, I enjoyed the episode, but (the main plot, at least) just didn't feel like it belonged in a Home Movies episode. I should probably just shut up and enjoy the fact that it's a funny episode, but I just can't shake the feeling that this "wacky" plot isn't part of the HM I love...
• The ending bit was funny to me on first watch, but seems a bit too much ever since. It feels a bit cheap. When I say that, I don't mean so much in that it ignores continuity, or even that it's too wacky. My big problem is that it gets rid of any real ending to the episode. How do Brendon and Jason get over their fat enabling problem? What does Melissa do? Can they still make movies? Well, that's tossed to the side; there's an ending joke montage...and that's that.
The changes to The Simpsons are best accounted for by the fairly regular rotation of its writers and directors. (I thought it might be fun to count up how many different writers and directors are credited from seasons 1 through 5, but it was very quickly apparent it would be more trouble than the point is worth.) But a rotating creative team doesn't explain the season-to-season changes in Home Movies. Loren Bouchard directed every episode, and discounting the retroscripted UPN five, show's only credited writers have ever been Benjamin, Bouchard, Braudis, and Small. Home Movies' evolution is the natural consequence of people continuing to explore the possibilities of their project—and selectively zeroing in on what they felt works best. Season 3 is less exploratory and risky than season 2, but much more efficient as a comedy vehicle.
My Cheatin' Heart
I think a mistake was made in casting Louis C.K. to play Andrew Small: unlike the other two Smalls and the members of their inner circle, Andrew's character wasn't shaped to the contours of his actor's personality. Brendon, McGuirk, and allies were built up through improvisation between actors; Andrew came from a script and a plot outline. Again, not that C.K. does a poor job, but it would have been nice if he had been given some latitude to flesh out Andrew extemporaneously.
For me, the highlight of "My Cheatin' Heart" is Brendon squabbling with his production team about his decision to shoot "An Affair to End With" (retitled from "The Affair") backwards. It brings to mind the advantages and frustrations of working with other people: what's a ballsy idea to you is often a bad idea to your collaborators, and too often than not, they're right.
"Guitarmegeddon" reminds me of Bob's Burgers. You have an underdog protagonist (Dwayne) in competition against an arrogant rival with every advantage over him. He makes mistakes and trips himself up; someone he was relying on doesn't deliver. He gives it his best shot and gets robbed. He loses. But he can be consoled by the knowledge that he's still good at what he does, and that there are people who appreciate and prefer him to his rival. Meanwhile, three kids are running amok and making a lot of noise. It's got comedy, it's got heart, and it's got some killer tunes thanks to Small (who performs as both Monet and Dwayne).
If nothing else, "Freaky, Outtie" is a pretty good aural approximation of the trio's films—rough at best and inept at worst, but energetic and delightfully, cluelessly enthusiastic.
Coffins and Cradles
In playing Linda, Laura Silverman, always had an easier job than Louis C.K. playing Andrew. Brendon's father was a career man trying give fatherhood another shot without being sure how—and C.K. had to convey this while being funny and likeable to boot. All Silverman had to do to play Linda was act like a bitch. (If your parents split up when you were young and you actually liked your father's first post-divorce girlfriend, let me know. I'm fairly certain it simply doesn't happen on this planet, but I'd be curious to hear contrary testimony.)
Linda and Brendon were never really reconciled at the end of season 2, but it seems that they've made some progress towards getting along with each other. Brendon goes with the pregnant Linda to her lamaze class in lieu of the absent Andrew (who's on a business trip, naturally); Linda helps Brendon with his awful last-minute Halloween costume. As before, there's still some snippiness and passive aggression between them, but this changes once Linda goes into labor: their aggression towards each other becomes anything but passive, and they get several months of pent-up resentment off their chests in a screaming match that culminates with the only knock-knock joke to have made me laugh in my adult life:
Linda: WHO'S THERE?!
Brendon: FUCK YOU!
Linda: FUCK YOU WHO?!
Brendon: FUCK YOU!
Linda: FUCK YOU!
Given that some of Home Movies' original appeal was how its phlegmatic tone presented a compelling alternative to the norm in the post-South Park TV landscape, it's strange to hear so much screaming and bleeped-out profanity—but I remember laughing myself breathless anyway. What works is what works.
"Isn't that ironic," Coach McGuirk answers ruefully when Brendon tells him about the birth, "life comes exploding into the world in all its beautiful fury, while death waits at my door."
This unexpected eloquence more or less encapsulates Coach McGuirk's charisma and compelling appeal. He's like Ben Katz and Jason in that he's a fusion of opposites, but his is far more volatile mixture. He is at once a clown and a dark poet; a drunken slob and a wounded, sensitive soul. A freethinker and a dolt. He's someone who you know you shouldn't listen to, but it's impossible not to listen to him—and not to occasionally suspect a gleam of enlightenment somewhere beneath all the angry nonsense congealed over his brain.
But we digress.
So season 3 ends with most of the principal cast assembled in Linda's room. A beaming Linda thanks everyone for being there. (When has Linda ever thanked anyone before now?) Brendon has a stepbrother and seems absolutely okay with it. And Coach McGuirk, minutes after declaring his intention to turn over a new leaf and lead a better, healthier, less self-destructive life, sends Brendon across the street to get him a corned beef sandwich.
Also, can we talk about how great it is that Tom Kenny—best known for voicing the titular character of SpongeBob SquarePants—makes a guest appearance as Linda's doctor and has this exchange with Brendon about one of his scripts:
Doctor: This is just some childish gibberish!
Brendon: Well, you know, it's a little rough, but——
Doctor: No, I like it, I like childish gibberish, and so does America!
He certainly would know.
Science Court—season 4 is controversial among Home Movies fans. I've seen people calling it the worst season; I've seen people pin "best of show" labels on every other episode.
Adult Swim didn't have much faith in Home Movies at this point, delaying its premiere and then airing the episodes out of order. It's known that at some point during production, Adult Swim honcho Mike Lazzo contacted the crew to tell them that this was it—after season 4, they were being cancelled, no matter how good their ratings were. Not that their ratings were going to be very good. By 2004, Adult Swim was no longer the hip little Sunday night niche block it had been during its first year or so; now it was on every night of the week, getting great press, and airing Family Guy and Futurama reruns. The same TV environment that had given Home Movies a second chance at life had transformed into a place where it couldn't possibly perform well enough to stay alive.
All of these scenes describe a Home Movies that has divorced itself from the low-key conversational comedy of its early days, and this is why season 4 sometimes gets flak from fans. Like The Simpsons in its final days—before becoming totally zombified—it relies somewhat inordinately on busy wackiness. Reading critical fans' reviews from 2004, one is often reminded of the tone and substance of the now-familiar criticisms The Simpsons began receiving around Seasons 9-10. Again, from the Home Movies Super Site, various fan comments from season 4's run:
• Notice how nothing really connects? Each plot seems like an idea that might've worked in another episode, but are tossed in haphazardly for a quick joke....Low on humor, character, and plot, this episode did little for me.
• i've always enjoyed the subtle humor of home movies. it's that, "did he just say what i think he said?" style that has always cracked me up. in this episode everyone's quirks were overemphasised and they lacked randomness, originality, and rawness....along with overplaying the character traits, it was too predictable.
• It suffers from generic sitcom wackiness syndrome.
• It was just another crazy adventure for McGuirk to have. I hope he doesn't spend every episode getting into some strange new activity. That's what Homer Simpson does now.
When Brendon, Melissa, and Jason arrive at Camp Campingston Falls (the "summer camp" chapter follows the "music group" chapter in The Big Book of Things to Have Happen So Plot Happens), they're all in the same troop (of course), Dwayne happens to be one of their counselors (of course), along with another two teenagers named Mike and Miguel, who are voiced by John and John of They Might Be Giants. They perform some original tunes—all apt to the occasion, nothing intrusive or gratuitous—but the most interesting musical number is the Dwayne and Scäb-driven metal number "Welcome to Hell." It's which is as much proof as you need that even while he was still working on Home Movies, Small had metal on the brain.
Two last notes, regarding the camp bosses:
1.) They embody an rigid law in the world of Home Movies: the more loudly and aggressively an adult insists they know what they're talking about, the more likely it is they're completely full of shit. (I suspect this is true in real life, but my research has not been sufficiently rigorous to say for certain.) In Home Movies, nobody has it all together, and anyone who makes such pretenses is being dishonest (which might also be true in this world).
2.) KEEP BRAIDING THE TWINE, MY LITTLE ARTISTS. BRAID THE TWINE IN THE HOT SUMMER'S DIRT. BRAID THE HARD, UNMALLEABLE TWINE....
The Wizard's Baker
Brendon's latest film is high fantasy musical called "The Wizard's Baker." The unhinged artless insanity rages in full force, and Melissa and Jason are really excited, but Brendon isn't feeling it. He has no desire to work on it. He doesn't really want to work on anything.
Meanwhile, Coach McGuirk buys swords from a home shopping channel because he's lonely and probably drunk.
So Brendon tries to fill a void in his life with soap box racers; McGuirk tries to fill a void in his life with very expensive swords. He also does it because it's wacky and Coach McGuirk does wacky things. It would be too reminiscent of a Homer story from Zombie Simpsons if it weren't one of the funniest McGuirk plots in the whole series.
"The Wizard's Baker" follows the late-Simpsons playbook in populating the Skunk Scouts with familiar stock characters for no good reason. Arnold Lindenson (from season 2) appears as the scoutmaster and Eugene (from season 1's "Yoko") appears with Junior Addleberg to invite Brendon to join the Skunk Scouts. Even though it's neat to see them both again, it verges on gratuity, and suggests that Home Movies, like The Simpsons in its last couple of pre-zombie seasons, was running out of room to grow at this point.
Bullets because your correspondent is tired.
• Veiled creator commentary, perhaps: the only one of Brendon's films that his audience appreciates all throughout season 4 is the one filled with gratuitous profanity.
• "You guys wanna touch my butt or not?" The perfect sexy female robot in Brendon's Weird Science ripoff seems to anticipate Tina Belcher's understanding of sexuality, doesn't she?
• How well do you remember the first time you started carelessly swearing? I think I was in the third grade (and I'm pretty sure I was playing Final Fantasy in some kid's basement for some reason) when I discovered I could say "shit" and "fuck" as maybe times as I wanted without the sky falling down on me. It was such a thrill and I never wanted to stop doing it.
• Katz is noticeably holding back laughter when he delivers the line "you son of a bitch" toward Benjamin's McGuirk. I think it's adorable how Katz can't help cracking up around Benjamin.
• Why is there a unicorn on the cover of Erik's journal?
• Melissa's reconciliation with Erik is one of the most cut-and-dry, reasonable, adult conversations that anyone on Home Movies ever has. It sends chills down my spine.
Definite Possible Murder
Following the "kids form a music group" and "summer camp" chapters in The Big Book of Things to Have Happen So Plot Happens come ten chapters about Hitchcock parodies. The first of those, of course, is the chapter on the Rear Window parody.
That said, Home Movies' still hasn't lost its flavor: when it relies on gag humor, its gag humor is usually better (or at least more charming) than that of its contemporaries. Fonzie McGuirk is infinitely preferable to Jerkass Homer.
(Can I just say I get a real kick out of Raymond Burley allowing Benjamin to reprise Science Court's I.M. Richman?)
In "Focus Grill," season 4's elephant in the room is finally addressed: Brendon just isn't enjoying making movies anymore.
Jason, trying to offer Brendon with a perspective check, pulls the their first film down from the shelf: a biker flick called "Easy Trikers." They get to the end and discover that there is no ending—it was left unfinished. They agree to each write an ending, and they will have the focus group choose which one they like best. Jason's ending involves a throwup monster. Melissa's is a fairy princess fantasy in which her mother returns. And Brendon's...well, we'll get to that. Lately he's been having trouble coming up with ideas, and this occasion is no exception.
When Home Movies began, Brendon was a kid looking for answers to questions, for solutions to problems. He made movies to cope with and escape from the concrete circumstances of his life. But now it's become inverted: the real world doesn't seem to cause Brendon nearly as much stress as his films.
He's on better terms with his father now (even if Andrew is mysteriously absent), he seems much more comfortable in his own skin than he did back in season 1, and he doesn't seem to mind that McGuirk is closer to his mother than ever before.
Meanwhile, McGuirk is out in the backyard trying to assemble a grill for Paula, with more enthusiasm than success. "End it with the grill," McGuirk suggests. "Have everybody grilling in the end."
Usually, Home Movies uses Brendon's films as metaphorical devices. In "Focus Grill," the Family Grill D9000 becomes a metaphor for Brendon's films and for the show itself. It's all very obviously self-referential because Home Movies should at least be allowed to eulogize itself. Lord knows TV Guide, Slate, Rolling Stone, and all the other cultural watchtowers weren't going to notice it was disappearing.
Generally speaking, one doesn't grill alone: it's one of the quintessential American group activities. You grill with your friends, you grill with your family. By now the Home Movies group—Brendon, Paula, Melissa, Jason, McGuirk—are at least a tribe, if not a family. In a world as tinged by defeat and failure as the nameless and placeless suburbs of Home Movies, it's enough to have people in your life who have your back—even if they can barely take care of themselves. We are strong together.
WE ARE STRONG TOGETHER, declare the heroes at the close of Brendon's version of the ending—which features the grill, as McGuirk suggested, but as the house the three bikers built out of their bikes. Tired of fighting, tired of wandering, the bikers settle down and build a house of their bikes. Not really a house, but a pile of trash. Assembled out of parts that were not intended to be put together. But its foundation is solid! Solid like our souls! We are strong together!
The focus group hates it.
Art is a way of reaching out to the world, to other people. If Brendon's films aren't meant to be watched by anyone, what's the use of them—especially if he doesn't enjoy the process anymore? If he, Melissa, and Jason just enjoy being together, why is the "making movies" pretense necessary?
I might have a bone to pick with this conclusion if it hadn't been made fairly clear that Brendon hasn't been happy with making movies in a long while. It's not working for him anymore—and it's certainly hasn't gotten any positive results lately—but he still keeps at it. Like Sisyphus and his boulder. Or, rather, like the Landstander and his rash, it's a curse he brings on himself.
And then it's grilling time. And then the Family Grill D9000 blows up and McGuirk takes the group out to eat. And Brendon drops the camcorder out of the car window, and it's run over and smashed to pieces by the car behind them.
Like McGuirk's abashed withdrawal in "The Wedding," Brendon's uncharacteristic choice to remain silent (we know him as a kid who always insists on being heard) is never explained—he looks like he's about to say something about the camera, but ends up chattering with the rest of the group about getting tapas. But we can extrapolate a reason for it. He's ready to cope with the world on his own. Not on his own—he has his unconventional tribe at his side—but without having to place his camera between himself and reality in order to function within it.
Brendon's silence has been the subject of a lot of fan discussion, but I rarely see McGuirk's strange smile in his final scene brought up in Home Movies conversations. The perennially angry and lonely Coach McGuirk goes out with a smile, and with a family.
It's truly a bittersweet ending because nothing good happens. The group's final movie is ripped to shreds. McGuirk tries and fails to do one more thing. Brendon's camcorder is destroyed in a random accident. Marriages fall apart, childhood ends degree by degree, and golden ages wane.
But the tribe survives, and life goes on—though never the same as before.