Celebrating Twenty Years of Home Movies

Richard Petro

twitter @ThePetroProject

April 26, 2019

     Before they would go their separate ways and create Metalocalypse and Bob’s Burgers, Brendon Small and Loren Bouchard co-created Home Movies, a series centering on 8-year-old Brendon Small and his friends, Jason and Melissa, as they navigate life whilst entertaining themselves by making their own films in Brendon’s basement. Premiering on UPN, it was cancelled a mere five episode in, but Cartoon Network swooped in and picked it up, seeing it as a perfect addition to a new adult-oriented nighttime block by the name of Adult Swim. And so, on September 2, 2001, Home Movies was the first show to air on the brand new Adult Swim, and would run for four seasons, building a cult following that is still very devoted to this day.

     In its first season, Home Movies was presented in Squigglevision, the same style that Bouchard’s previous work, Dr. Katz, was made, before moving into a Flash animation style with the second season. The series also used ‘retroscripting’, meaning episodes and scenes were outlined in terms of what the overall plot would be, but the dialogue was largely improvised by the cast, recording together at the same time, unlike many animated shows. This gave Home Movies an incredibly natural feel, with overlapping, realistic dialogue and a very realistic sense of humour, even at its most ridiculous. Because of this, the characters feel incredibly real, and have wonderful layers to them.
     The kids are distinctly different yet share many traits amongst themselves, making them play off each other beautifully. Brendon is seemingly really high-strung at times and worrisome, while Melissa is very shy and soft spoken and Jason, being younger, seems less developed in his maturity than the other two yet has moments where he seems more in tune with on-goings than his friends.
     The supporting cast are just as fleshed out as our main characters. Paula, Brendon’s single mom, is a struggling college writing teacher who works hard at being a supportive mother to her son and her infant daughter, while Erik, Melissa’s single father, is a successful realtor and walking dad joke. Mr. Lynch, the schoolteacher, is unmistakably white bread and slightly pretentious while soccer coach McGuirk is all-around incompetent. Fenton is a self-obsessed twerp of a child whereas Shannon is the bully who may have a few surprises to him. The number of great supporting characters continues with a slew of others, but each individual works in building and realizing this real world that they inhabit.

     The trio of Brendon and his friends Jason and Melissa (played by Brendon Small, H. Jon Benjamin and Melissa Bardin Galsky, respectively) being proper 8-year-olds is where the show finds the majority of its heart and a good chunk of its humor, because at the end of the day, the three are just kids. They have their child-like innocence and confusion with certain adult subjects they may not understand, yet are infinitely smarter than one might think for their age, which is true of many children. One minute they can give genuinely good advice to an adult (advice that may generally be better than most adults here can give), and the next they can have a quintessential, kid-ish petty squabble (a hilarious moment involves a back and forth of “No, you’re stupid!” between Melissa and Jason, before they both pause to remember what it was they were arguing about in the first place… and almost immediately reverting back to their verbal tennis match of “No, you’re stupid!”)

     It’s this ability to properly convey the children that ultimately leads Home Movies to be so great. It effectively captures the mind frame and time in one’s life when there is so much ahead to look forward to, so much to find wonder in and so many new things you’re taking in. But the show’s true success is what separates it from other shows of its kind. Home Movies is in no way a nostalgic look back at childhood.
     In the final moments of the first season, as a number of core characters sit in the Small’s living room, the phone begins to ring. The episode had been building to this, as Paula told Brendon that she was going to tell his father about an award him and his friends had won. The phone call was, as Brendon was dreading, coming at anythime. Paula tells Brendon that he only has to answer it if he wants to. Brendon, visibly nervous, reluctantly answers. End season.

     The second season introduces us to Brendon’s dad, Andrew. He’s obviously an absentee father and Brendon has a hard time talking to him. Things go from bad to worse as Brendon finds out that his dad is about to remarry. Worse still, after meeting his dad’s fiancée, Brendon argues with his dad that she doesn’t like him. Shouldn’t that be an issue, that the person you’re marrying doesn’t like your child? And if it isn’t, is it because Brendon’s overreacting, or because his dad doesn’t care about him as much as Brendon hopes he would or thinks he should. They butt heads and Brendon even begins to trickle his feelings into his films, as kids would do in any of their own creative setting. It’s not the only example of this, but it’s the most prominent, as it ends up being one of the most impactful focal points for Brendon in the series, rightly so.

     It’s no shock to say that growing up is hard. The happy days of doing nothing but seeing your friends while hanging out in the sun or snow, playing video games or sports, and having nothing but homework be the cause of your worries eventually leads way to an age where you begin to realize that life isn’t as straightforward or easy at it seemed. There are countless events one can experience that can launch you into the maturity that you may think you aren’t ready for. And that’s okay.
     By the end of the series (with what I will always argue is one of the best series finales out there), Brendon has come full circle in a way that leaves him with a feeling of acceptance. All of this is simply learning and, in doing so, growing as the person you are and will be. Most importantly, as Brendon learns, it may take a while and it may be hard, but you will be able to let go, and it’s okay to do so. There will always be tomorrow, and you always have the ability and opportunity to learn and grow.

     Which leads us, in a poorly handled and whiplash-inducing change of tone on my part, to Coach John McGuirk, beautifully played by H. Jon Benjamin. Benjamin reminds me a lot of Phil Hartman, in that his most major characters in animation (McGuirk, Archer, and Bob) all have the same voice, but very obviously and incredibly distinct. You can tell one from the other by a single line. And Benjamin does a remarkable job in his performance of McGuirk. McGuirk is a man’s man…’s man. He is, by all means, a parody of male id.
     He coaches a sport he doesn’t know (or care) that much about at the school. He only got the job because it didn’t require a degree and they needed someone. Yet he still cares enough to mercilessly scold kids at their godawful playing ability or yelling at a ref in the middle of a game, questioning if he’s “making a call or taking a s*** in my mouth?
     He has done and experienced an endless amount of things over his life, so he can give you advice about anything at the drop of a hat/ But his advice is so disastrously awful and misguided that it’s a surprise he’s even made it to this point (he also has a tendency to state a point, try to relate to a ramble about an off-topic subject, then return to the original point of the conversation, at which point he states a contradictory conclusion to his opening…)
     He’s a ladies man… who has no skill whatsoever in socializing with the opposite sex.
     And the list goes on (his stand-up is superb, though).

     The comedy of McGuirk doesn’t simply come from his machismoness, but from the unwavering confidence with which he handles himself in situations where things are going embarrassingly wrong. But McGuirk is anything but a one-note character. Through improvisations that stuck or planted ideas/plans, small foundations are laid that subtly turn the coach into a compelling character, and quite soon at that.
     At the end of the first episode, Brendon goes to McGuirk’s office due to having something important to discuss. It’s an awkward conversation they have to have, but it is Brendon’s first time in McGuirk’s office so he breaks the ice discussing certain items around them.
        Brendon: I found out where your office was so I decided I’d come down and talk to you.
        McGuirk: Yeah, they hid me away down here.
        Brendon: It’s a nice place, uh—
        McGuirk: Well I just started redecorating it, I--
        Brendon: Is that a sleeping bag?
        McGuirk: (slight pause) Yeah, just, uh… I do some camping sometimes and occasionally I’ll sl… I’ll camp right here.

     This ends up planting the seeds of what would become insight into the inner working of McGuirk. Despite his uber-manly ridiculousness, he seems to have a level of self-awareness; he seems to know his life, and himself as a person, isn’t all that he makes it out to be. This fact coupled with what we learn about him as time goes on, such as his past as a Scottish Highland Dancer, fully paints McGuirk as the three dimensional character he really is, someone who probably grew up without any real outside support when it was most vital before losing any semblance of true motivation and going through the motions of where life takes him, all while adhering to the harmful notion of what a real “man’s man” is and how he is one.
     McGuirk is awful at thinking out situations and handling responsibility (as evidenced by the time he moved from his apartment without securing an actual place to live), and he seems to be even worse to himself. All of that slowly changes, however, as he goes from just a coach to advice-bestower to Brendon, to a prominent figure as the kids repeatedly ask him for rides and input/help. He even offers support when the kids are dealing with a video store clerk who, they feel, didn’t appreciate their film enough for a movie contest. Sure, he does so by strumming a guitar and singing a ditty about how the guy should re-watch/accept the kids’ film or “I’ll break your back, watch it again or I’ll punch your f***ing face,” but that’s what McGuirk knows. He’s always lived a ‘fight for yourself’ kind of life.

     And McGuirk continues to learn and grow, and it is an example of what I consider the icing on the cake of the series. Home Movies was always great at showing that, though there is a line between adults and children, that line is way thinner than you may think. We get into petty squabbles. We puff ourselves up to make people we don’t care about jealous. We hope we reach that magical moment in life where everything makes sense and we definitely know what’s going on and what we are doing. The only real constant is learning and growing, and a lot of times that learning can be hard and painful. We learn that it’s okay to let go of certain thing and people, like a parent who isn’t as invested in us as we hope they would be. And we end up growing by the people we let into our lives, ones we realize are what we need.
     The journey of Brendon and McGuirk’s arc rightfully ends on the same path, both traveling it together. The knowledge that there is someone like Brendon reaching out and accepting him teaches McGuirk responsibility, while McGuirk presents a father figure to Brendon. They make each other better, and shows both of them that maybe things aren’t going to be so bad after all.

     A rewatch of the series becomes essential. Yes, it’s hilarious, has a ton of great characters, and relatable events, but the ending breathes new depth to its proceedings as certain moments come off incredibly sweet knowing where we end up. Home Movies may seem like a silly little comedy about kids making movies in a basement, but it sits as an endearing and heartfelt look at what life is, and how things can turn out for the better no matter what.

     Oh, and for those wondering what the awkward conversation that I mentioned Brendon and McGuirk have to have is about? The first episode of the series revolves around McGuirk going on a date with Paula, and Brendon being horrified at the thought of Coach McGuirk becoming his “new dad”.

     Life is funny, sometimes.