“Law And Boarder” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 10/7/2001) and “Brendon’s Choice” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired 10/7/2001)
Simply based on the makeup of its main ensemble, Home Movies is unique among animated TV series of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Jason’s is the only nuclear family within the Small-Robbins-Penopolis-McGuirk orbit, and his mom and dad are offscreen presences. Otherwise, the show is Dan-Quayle-heart-attack fodder: It’s a realm of single-parent households, an oddity among the prominent primetime cartoons of its era. Among the many elements Family Guy “borrows” from The Simpsons is its use of that sturdiest of American archetypes—mom, dad, and two-and-a-half kids—as a jumping-off point for animated subversiveness. King Of The Hill and Daria, meanwhile, center their satirical suburban send-ups on similar family units (though the “daughter” role in the Hill house is occupied by Hank and Peggy’s niece). Only the Cartmans of South Park are analogous to the Smalls and the Robbins—but the parents of Cartman’s three best friends are still more or less happily married at the start of that series.
It’s not that Home Movies is cynical about love or marriage. Though the former of those quantities leads to foolish behavior in “Yoko” and “School Nurse” and the latter gives Paula a kitchen full of shattered flatware in “Law And Boarder,” I don’t think any of the characters on the show are emotionally mature enough to stick by a partner for more than a few weeks, let alone the rest of their lives. Paula’s more stable than her plate-smashing college buddy Stephanie, but Brendon’s father is apparently the only topic she has trouble speaking frankly about with her son. Coach McGuirk has anger issues and difficulty keeping his goldfish alive. At the suggestion of appearing on camera, Erik acts more childlike than Brendon, Melissa, or Jason. (That’s understandable, though, seeing as those three have spent a significant portion of their young lives—more the 400 movies’ worth—in front of Brendon’s camcorder.) Home Movies makes a subtle statement about what constitutes a family—one that would slip right by Ryan Murphy and his Metaphor Bludgeon—but it also provides plenty of good reasons for why its adult characters are single.
Their kids are all right, though—as all right as kids can be. Following a pair of episodes where he’s upstaged by his soccer coach, Brendon is at the forefront of “Law And Boarder” and “Brendon’s Choice,” going through some mighty rough stuff. Hit by a car, abused by the legal system, confronting questions about an absent father: It’s a lot for an 8-year-old to take. His feelings on both situations are, of course, channeled through the movies Brendon makes in these episodes. The “slapstick barbarian” comedy he, Melissa, and Jason try to make finds its true form in Brendon’s court-ordered video essay/hit piece; his dad-issues creep to the surface throughout the first half of “Brendon’s Choice,” as the excerpts from the award-winning Fat-Her (wink wink, nudge nudge) reveal a film that’s less about the eight women Jason plays and more about marital infidelity, painful memories, and images of broken homes couched in stories about dinosaurs.
The Fat-Her material of “Brendon’s Choice” taps a poignant vein, but it never forgets that the characters making the movies, for all their pretensions toward sophistication, are still in elementary school. In the funniest scene of the episode, the TV journalist reporting on Brendon, Melissa, and Jason’s movie-making digs at the subtext of Fat-Her: Brendon’s character feels bad about stepping out on his wife (except when he doesn’t), while the stuffed zebra Jason’s character produces “represents redemption” or “the cell that keeps him a prisoner of his own dark secrets.” That all sounds good to the young director, even if that’s not what he intended. “The thing about the zebra is that it, uh, looks like a horse,” he earnestly replies. It’s a great joke at the expense of over-analytical critics (wrote the pot to the kettle), as well as an acknowledgment of the kids’ naïveté toward the subjects of their films. That’s a crucial distinction for the show—in “Law And Boarder,” Brendon lists a number of films (“Escape From Alcatraz and The Rock and that Attica documentary and Stripes… Goodfellas”) that attest to his wide-ranging cinema expertise, but he’s too young to actually process the themes of such movies. His own filmmaking lifts the surface-level elements of these age-inappropriate rentals and filters them through the emotions and perception of a precocious 8-year-old.
And when the adults he’s not making movies about fail the kid, who’s there to help him out? None other than Coach John McGuirk. There’s still too much of Home Movies remaining to call what McGuirk goes through in these two episodes “redemptive”—and even then, a full redemption of the character would rob him of everything that makes Coach McGuirk funny, endearing, and, well, Coach McGuirk. McGuirk’s actions in the final two episodes of Home Movies’ first season are those of curious, hilarious contradictions. When Stephanie fails to take Brendon to his court date, Coach McGuirk steps in—and in true McGuirk fashion, is put in contempt of court and sentenced to write his own essay. “Brendon’s Choice” presents McGuirk with his own choice—take an anger-management course or be fired—but when he begins to show progress, he falls victim to the show’s inexhaustible supply of anonymous bullies and taunters. (The guy heckling the coach at the soccer game may as well be related to the “Loser’s Day” kid from “The Art Of The Sucker Punch.”) Temporarily relieved from the burden of setting a good example for the kids, however, Coach McGuirk’s final scene of the season places him in the backseat of his tormentor’s car, primed to injure a gray-haired soccer fan. So much for progress.
Home Movies, however, shows a tremendous amount of progress across its first 13 episodes. “Brendon’s Choice” tells the tightest, most well-rounded stories of the first season, without sacrificing any of the spontaneity or digressiveness that defines the series. Both the finale and “Law And Boarder” avoid the pitfalls of previous episodes that hinge on one-off guest players by integrating them into plots generated by the main characters—and not vice versa. Stephanie illustrates that life could be much worse (and devoid of plates) for the Smalls; Reporter Dixie Smithley affords some insight into the kids’ filmmaking process and pushes Brendon to ask questions about his dad. These are the benefits of working with characters who have 12 episodes of emotions, backstory, and basement-made blockbusters behind them. As the Home Movies brain trust grew to know its characters, it learned what stories worked for them and which didn’t. That’s a facile conclusion, but it’s evident in how well these two episodes reflect the singular charms of the series while making good on Cartoon Network’s decision to bring Home Movies back to life. Ultimately, the core of Home Movies, like so many great ensemble shows before and after it, would be a family—but not the nuclear type. As the first season of the series closes, we can see the members of that brood falling into place.
- Mitch Hedberg makes his final two Home Movies appearances in this week’s episodes, playing a police officer and (more suited to his languid vocal stylings) Coach McGuirk’s anger-management counselor. As the police officer, however, Hedberg delivers a great, off-the-cuff punch line, responding to Paula’s suggestion that his character has been lisping with the line “Don’t make me arretht you.”
- The marital status of Jason’s parents will come into play in season three’s “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (the one where Brendon’s grandma says, “Hi Paula, how was your fire? I’m getting a divorce.”), when Jason pretends his mom and dad are splitting up just to fit in. It’s a great play on the established norms of Home Movies—if Jason’s the only kid in the group whose parents are still together, why wouldn’t he fake a divorce?
- Jason has a lot of MVP material this week, particularly that aforementioned statistic on his Fat Her roles: He plays 11 different characters in the movie, eight of whom are women. He also attempts to demonstrate the “Rake Effect” with his “axe you a question”/“acting barbaric” jokes for the barbarian movie, but gets shut down before either joke can come back around to being funny. (Not that he needs to, because the whole sequence itself is funny.)
- Just like the first season of Home Movies, Brendon, Melissa, and Jason’s movies utilize an unorthodox scripting process: Their screenplays are just doodled storyboards.
- The cocking-gun sound effect the drunken trumpet player in “Law And Boarder” makes in response to Brendon’s line about cheap cologne and whiskey is a great piece of character detail.
- Scäb’s greatest-hits compilation receives another addition during “Law And Boarder,” in the form of the chunky punk number “Don’t Kill Children.” Brendon Small’s desire to make a show like Metalocalypse was obvious from an early stage of Home Movies, wasn’t it?
- How have the kids made so many movies in so few years? “Some are very, very short films with no endings.”
- The “new” McGuirk drops some truth on Brendon and Melissa: “Actually, I feel sorry for that guy. He obviously has some deeply troubling issues. Probably had a bad childhood, like you guys.”
- This week in “John McGuirk says more about himself than he realizes,” in response to the principal’s “I’ll be watching you”: “That’s illegal!”
- A big “Thanks!” to everyone who turned out to read and discuss these first 13 episodes of Home Movies. The series only gets better from here, and with the introduction of Brendon’s father (voiced by Louis C.K.!) and the strengthening of the supporting cast in season two, there ought to be a lot more to talk about in future seasons of the show. TV Club Classic is going into hibernation for a few weeks, returning when the new fall 2012 season settles into a groove, and I’ll most likely be moving back to The Muppet Theater for a spell at that point. However, look for further Home Movies coverage in 2013!