“I Don’t Do Well In Parent-Teacher Conferences” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 5/3/1999) and “The Art Of The Sucker Punch” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 5/10/1999)
Given how elastic the definition of “bully” and “bullying” has become in recent years, I’m loathe to bring up the term to discuss this week’s Home Movies doubleheader. It doesn’t help that the most outwardly “bullying” character in these two episodes, neighborhood tormentor Shannon (voiced by comedian Emo Philips), turns out to be a pretty swell guy. Sure, he uses his size and physical prowess to intimidate smaller, weaker kids like Jason and Brendon, but the comedy of the character comes from the fact that other kids are endowing him with the characteristics of a bully. In “The Art Of The Sucker Punch,” the character spends more time on screen watching after his brothers and overseeing a birthday party than he does beating people up. It might just be a natural outgrowth of Philips’ inherent gentleness, but his character turns out to be a bizarrely benevolent, sympathetic figure.
But in the movie in Brendon’s mind—and, perhaps, in the narratives we invent for ourselves when we look back on our own childhoods—there’s no such room for nuanced characterization. The documentary that “Big Bad” Brendon Small builds around his fight with Shannon positions its director and star as the wily underdog, the champion of the people he inadvertently insults as he’s working himself up into a Shannon-pummeling lather. The People respond in kind, in a hysterical sequence where an unnamed H. Jon Benjamin character relentlessly taunts Brendon from an upstairs window. The scene is a sterling example of the crackling give-and-take that Home Movies’ improvised “retroscripting” process could create, but it’s also a great way of bringing Brendon back to earth—before Shannon drags him through the mud.
The black-and-white world of Brendon’s movies is further exemplified by the Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde/Incredible Hulk homage filmed throughout “I Don’t Do Well In Parent-Teacher Conferences,” where mild-mannered Brendon transforms into a hideous, pig-tailed Jason-beast every time he’s tasked with speaking in public. But how could he not see the world that way when the two most visible male role models in his life—reedy, bookish Mr. Lynch and hulking, impulsive Coach McGurk—represent both sides of the Jekyll/Hyde coin? Lynch and McGurk’s opposition in all corners of life eventually becomes a touchstone of Home Movies, so it’s a lot of fun to watch the seeds of, say, their disastrous third-season double date (“NEW YORK TIMES!?”) in this week’s scenes in the teachers’ lounge. Perhaps even more so than Shannon, McGurk is accustomed to intimidating his way into getting what he wants, and he sees the straight-laced, intellectual Mr. Lynch as just another impediment keeping the coach from achieving his meager dreams. And because Mr. Lynch’s punishment keeps Brendon from helping McGurk stave off at least some of the embarrassment of his soccer team’s latest loss, Lynch must be humiliated in front of his peers—in the most childlike fashion, utilizing nose-flicking and shoelace-knotting tactics that are presumably beneath Shannon.
That’s the type of childhood-adulthood switcheroo Home Movies loves pulling—role reversals where Paula tries to whine her way out of a parent-teacher conference, for instance, or Brendon making an appointment to fight with Shannon. It’s here where the improvisational nature of these early episodes really lends a hand, keeping the show’s recurring Freaky Friday routine from feeling forced or contrived. Compared to “The Art Of The Sucker Punch” (which is propelled forward by the larger-than-life, When We Were Kings-esque myth-building Brendon does for himself) “I Don’t Do Well At Parent-Teacher Conferences” drags due to its lack of structure. However, its looseness also produces some elegant, in-the-moment comedic turns—as when Brendon and Paula’s conversation about the parent-teacher conference jackknifes into Brendon offering the type of support (“You are so smart and you don’t even know it. You are so good at what you do.”) and pre-conference itinerary that should be Paula’s undertaking. There’s often a sense that the adult characters on the series are failing the children miserably, which would be a tragic conclusion were the kids not so capable of keeping track of themselves (and, when necessary, their parents).
Of course, we never truly duck the things that intimidate us in life—they just change form, like the monster through which Brendon channels his fear of public speaking (before plugging it with infinite rounds of suction-cupped ammo). One of the distinct advantages of Home Movies’ childhood point-of-view is the way it exaggerates mundane hassles like parent-teacher conferences and awkward birthday parties into life-or-death ordeals. Later seasons will heighten this sense to comically rich heights, to the point where spending the weekend at a not-quite-friend’s house is tantamount to a brief prison term. It’s because of this that Home Movies is able to stand with great TV representations of childhood and adolescence, pitched somewhere between the heightened reality of The Adventures Of Pete And Pete and Freaks And Geeks’ grounded parade of indignities. At some point in our lives, we all feel like a mud-caked Jason or a Mr. Lynch with an untied bow tie—but Loren Bouchard, Brendon Small, and crew were smart enough to reveal a little bit about the people on the other sides of those situations. With so little of “I Don’t Do Well At Parent-Teacher Conferences” and “The Art Of The Sucker Punch” committed to paper, there’s room for Shannon and Coach McGurk to move around (albeit it in limited animation) and pick up additional shading. Even a hulking, terror-of-the-cul-de-sac brute like Shannon is revealed (in one of the show’s signature split-screen telephone conversations) to be just another 8-year-old. He’s not a bully so much as another lens through which Brendon can capture and process the world around him—once that black eye heals, of course. Wise beyond his years, Shannon realizes the role he plays in Brendon’s life, and he’s more than happy to let the kid think he’s won the battle and the war. “Everyone needs a little victory,” he tells Melissa, while Brendon cavorts about with the show’s ubiquitous lawn gnome, the spoils of his “win” over Shannon. “It’ll help him. I don’t want the guy to have a complex when he gets older.”
- I wonder if the character design for Mr. Lynch had a mustache before H. Jon Benjamin brought it up in the recording studio.
- Home Movies goes to work quickly in filling out its roster of supporting players. Not only does this week mark the first appearance of Mr. Lynch, but we’re also introduced to local guitar shredder Dwayne and chattering playground dandies Walter and Perry. Dwayne eventually becomes something of a teenaged avatar for the rock-god fantasies Brendon Small now works out through Metalocalypse; Walter and Perry, meanwhile, are the prototypical example of Home Movies’ ability to make its most annoying characters some of its most endearing presences. (See also: Mewley, Fenton.)
- Jason’s been brushing up on film theory and history between shoots: “We should shoot day for night like Truffaut.”
- The first of many, many bizarre exaggerations from Walter and Perry helps raise the stakes for Brendon’s fight documentary: “Perry’s mom got beat up by Shannon.”
- The jeers from the upstairs window have a limited range: “See you tomorrow—Loser’s Day!”
- Coach McGurk’s fighting techniques may also be 1960s dance crazes: “Did you do the crazy donkey? Did you do the wacky lobster?”