The night my wife met Brendon Small, he was master of ceremonies at a Guitar Hero contest in San Francisco. This was an entirely appropriate thing to be doing, since he’s achieved a not-insignificant amount of fame via his creation of Metalocalypse, an uproarious, usually absurd, late-night cartoon which is half celebration, half parody of heavy metal.
After the contest, Small hung out and did the meet and greet expected of all celebrities of his stature, shaking hands with any geeks, metalheads, or bystanders who happened to recognize him (he’s a remarkably unassuming looking man). A click of a camera, a quick smile, a bit of praise for Metalocalypse followed by a quick thank you, before either a beer or the next fan. When my wife’s turn came, it went a bit differently.
“I really love Home Movies. Thanks for making it. Fantastic show.”
My wife tells me that Small was surprised, perhaps even a bit appreciative, that anyone remembered Home Movies. In the whirl of Metalocalypse’s buzz (this was at the height of the show’s popularity, in 2007), Small’s first show was quickly fading into nothingness.
Home Movies, a tag-team effort with a producer of Comedy Central’s long-running Dr. Katz, is maybe the last truly great show of the Nineties. An adult animated comedy in the vein of The Simpsons, launched in the mad late-Nineties dash to duplicate that hit series’s success in the 18+ demographic, the show was primarily devoted to adult reflection on the divorce epidemic in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Almost every major joke and plot point revolves around how the pervasiveness of broken marriages affected children and notions of family for a generation.
It does this in a very specific way, however. Home Movies is not, as so many shows of the time (particularly those with a social message), meant to be universal or, even worse, secretly geared toward commenting on Baby Boomer childhood. Home Movies is a show primarily, almost exclusively, about the experience of Gen Xers as divorce castoffs and latchkey kids.
The series follows Brendon Small (the main character shares the show creator’s name, a tipoff that Home Movies is intensely personal for Small), a precocious ten-year-old with a passion for making elaborate movies with an old camcorder. His best friends Melissa and Jason serve as his creative partners. The premise is straightforward, even simple; a given episode invariably tells the parallel stories of some “real-world” issue (Brendon has a crush, Brendon confronts a bully) and the attempt by Brendon and his friends to make a movie, usually one trying to make sense of the primary issue at hand.
Nothing is really straightforward about the show once the dialogue starts and the plots unfold, however. Pervading the entire series is a deep ambivalence about the role of the traditional family. Brendon’s mother Paula is an overwhelmed single parent, seemingly on a knife’s edge between solvency and bankruptcy. The portrayal veers between sympathetic and almost mocking; while Paula is undoubtedly affectionate toward Brendon and his baby sister (a remarkably minor, almost entirely absent, character), she is held back by sheer ineptitude. She can’t cook. She can’t handle minor repairs around the house. She barely makes ends meet with her income from part-time job at a community college—before she finally loses it. Even the flowers she brings into the house are infested with pests.
But it’s not just Paula that comes out as borderline dysfunctional. Every single adult in the show is profoundly incompetent in some way. Brendon’s father, voiced by Louis CK and completely absent until the beginning of Season Two, is a successful businessman with no idea how to speak to his child and a fiancée fifteen years younger than he is. Melissa’s father, another single parent, is (quasi-)competent and responsible, but he is singularly devoted to making his daughter feel profoundly uncomfortable with weird stories and terrible jokes. The most prominent teacher in the series, Mr. Lynch, is cat-obsessed and socially inept in the extreme.
It’s not, of course, uncommon for a comedy to sketch its characters in broad, jokey strokes for a laugh. Still, this sense of distrust—sometimes outright disdain—for the adults in Brendon’s life is so pervasive that it begins to cohere into a worldview, one that reveals an acute unease with the trappings of adulthood and, especially, parenthood. It’s a world of absent fathers and not terribly good moms. Even when there’s familial affection between parent and child, and there are many instances, the moment is always accompanied by a Seinfeldian sense of discomfort. And looming above all of the other adults is Coach McGuirk.
If Home Movies is set against a backdrop of grownups behaving poorly, Coach McGuirk (the character given the most screentime after Brendon) is the titan of self-indulgence, poor decision-making, and ignorance—almost a parody of straight single white guy id.
McGuirk is an outright failure, not a borderline case as the other adults in the show are. He became a soccer coach because there was a job listing for one; he doesn’t actually know anything about soccer. He flies into long, droning monologues in which he expounds upon the meaning of life according to McGuirk, which means meditations on bad tattoos and how to handle hangovers. He watches the Home Shopping Network and buys two months’ worth of salary in knives and swords before ambushing a spaghetti dinner with katanas.
I distinctly recall an interview in which it was revealed that Home Movies was initially meant to be a vehicle for H. Jon Benjamin, who did the voice for McGuirk and now plays both Bob from Bob’s Burgers and the titular character on Archer. Certainly, there’s seldom been such a great confluence of character and voice actor: Benjamin’s sleepy, impossibly deep voice perfectly captures the languid insanity of McGuirk’s life.
After it was dumped by UPN after five episodes, Cartoon Network made Home Movies the first show in a nighttime lineup it called Adult Swim. That lineup has become, of course, a staple of late night viewing for cult television junkies, college students, slackers, and a million other sub-demographics with a hunger for anime and absurdist adult humor. And make no mistake: Adult Swim built its name on the absurd side of cartoon humor. Those early years of Adult Swim thrived on shows like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Sealab 2021, all grounded in a post-ironic, patently ridiculous, cheap-to-produce style, which eventually reached its apex in the love-it-or-hate-it live-action series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
McGuirk’s character fits perfectly in this paradigm, with his comedic, stream-of-consciousness musings. A perversion of the wise man archetype, McGuirk’s sole purpose in the show is spitting out exactly the wrong advice at any given moment.
But a curious thing happened as Home Movies wore on. A show seemingly set to follow Coach McGuirk instead found itself centering on the kids. Where the adults are mostly caricatures (or in McGuirk’s case, outright absurdist clowns), Brendon, Melissa, and Jason are collectively one of the best realized attempts of the era at recalling the whirl of excitement, enthusiasm, and fear which is integral to being a child. The show is still comedy but the pervasive anxiety of childhood portrayed in Home Movies is searingly accurate.
This rejection of any attempt to make its message more universal is key to its success. When, at the end of season one, Brendon’s father calls him on the phone, we see Paula ask Brendon if he wants to speak with him. Brendon takes a deep breath and, tentatively, almost fearfully, picks up the receiver and says, “Hello.” In two minutes of television, all of the anxiety a child of divorce feels when placed in the spotlight of inter-parent conflicts, even small ones, is made manifest in a way I’ve never quite seen before or since. Brendon is, in that moment, impossibly small, his voice faint and quivering as he swallows the pervasive anxiety of childhood in order to speak to a man who may or may not be there next week.
Just as so many latchkey kids do, Brendon and his two friends form a surrogate family for one another to make up for the real, dysfunctional families they have at home. The act of moviemaking helps the children express their imaginations and love for one another without the weight of the adult world intruding. Melissa can be a male pirate. Jason can be a method actor. Brendon can try to make the world’s greatest movie. Upstairs, the adults can continue doing (and failing at) the quotidian crap adults do while the three kids form friendships and explore the depths of their imaginations.
The show hit when my age cohort, the kids at the tail end of Generation X, were in our early-to-mid twenties. Like Small and his writing staff, we were just beginning to reflect on our childhoods with adult eyes. Home Movies was written for us, or so it seemed.
When I watch Home Movies, I can see reflections of me and my friends as kids—down to the elaborate attempts at filmmaking. My father was not incompetent (he’s probably hyper-competent), but he was busy and sometimes overwhelmed, raising two boys on a single salary. My mother was certainly ineffectual and even more certainly absent. Her sporadic attempts at contact played out almost precisely like the scenes between Brendon and his father.
My friends all had similar stories. Maybe their parents split because of an affair. Maybe it was stress. For most, it was a creeping, inexcusable boredom on the parts of their parents. And it was all of my friends. I remember being asked, when my parents split up in 1986, not to bring up the subject of their divorce with others because they thought it was embarrassing, especially in a town of 15,000 where most everyone knew each other. That was in the first major wave of divorces. By 1990, I could count the number of people I knew with intact families on one, at most two, hands. There wasn’t a stigma anymore, just a collective wound and a horde of kids trying to fill up time.
For me and my friends, at least for a while, our time-killer was movies. My dad worked for the North Carolina Forest Service and they had a bulky camcorder that was available for home use. We didn’t have the spare cash to really afford our own video equipment, so he’d bring the camcorder home from work. Friends would come over and we’d clumsily animate a fight between toys. We made slasher flicks, mixing up cottage cheese, ketchup and lunch meat to make fake gore. Spoofed commercials, kung fu movies, music videos, etc. The plot and genre didn’t matter, just so long as my friends, my brother, and I got to fill the empty space left by our departed or overworked parents with each other.
We all moved on. After movies, it was punk rock. And skateboarding. And roleplaying games. And war games. All of limited shelf life, as a child’s attention span tends to allow, but all—this is the important bit—social activities that gave us reason to support one another. Hobbies became the pretexts for our most meaningful relationships.
Brendon’s relationship with McGuirk begins the same way, revolving around a social activity, in this case soccer. Tentatively, at first, McGuirk is allowed into the children’s circle, little by little, until he and Brendon form a father-son relationship. Naturally, this is mostly with Brendon acting as the son and McGuirk as the father, but sometimes the roles are reversed. McGuirk is a fundamentally childlike character and he serves as the father to Brendon by virtue of age and size, not maturity or wisdom. (Although it is McGuirk’s adamancy that he is indeed wise that gives him most of his comedic appeal.) Brendon shows a kind of paternal concern for McGuirk and, particularly in the third and fourth seasons, acts as an emotional bulwark for the older man.
The series finale ties all of these themes together neatly. McGuirk helps Paula put together a monstrously complicated outdoor grill. There is foreshadowing here of McGuirk becoming an actual father to Brendon; he is doing a stereotypical “dad” job, albeit very poorly. Brendon, being mostly disinterested in the process, hangs out with his friends and tries to finish their first film, only to discover that it’s not nearly as good as they had expected. Perhaps, they realize, none of their films are any good.
The final few frames are some of the best Home Movies has to offer. Brendon, in a car with all of the principle characters, accidentally drops his camera out the car window and asks to turn around. No one pays attention and the camera is destroyed by a trailing car. His lip quivers for a moment before he turns to his friends and family with a smile, not mentioning it again. The course of the show is complete; Brendon feels secure enough that he doesn’t need the talisman of the movie camera to keep his family, surrogate or otherwise, in his orbit any longer. Off they ride to get burgers and find new activities to engage in.
There have been other shows about divorce, of course, but they tended to be more holistic, with the whole family as the focus, rather than zooming in on the children. When the shows about divorce were child focused, such as with Blossom, the kids tended to be written as observers to their own stories, with their most potentially moving emotional expressions relegated to Very Special Episode status. Those shows were too afraid to really get into the heads of their subjects and even more afraid to get into young subjects like Brendon and company; after all, the voice of an eight-year-old requires more translation than most.
Home Movies is braver than that. It allows Brendon to be the narrator of his own story. That does not mean that Home Movies was written by eight-year-olds. It does mean that the writers were unafraid to revisit those years. By recognizing that fear of abandonment, by friends or family, might be the unifying theme of childhood, particularly when divorce is involved, Home Movies captures the essence and spirit of a generation that had been steeped in that fear.
Television, unlike movies, has a temporary quality to it. Even the best shows, with very rare exceptions, tend to disappear into the ether, becoming immediately dated after they go off the air. This is a terrible tragedy, for episodic television captures the rhythm of American mores and interests in a way most films, with their comparatively short narratives, can’t.
So it is with Home Movies. There’s a time capsule feel to the whole thing. It’s still worth watching purely on the merits of its crisp writing and comedic timing; it is, truly, a top-notch comedy. But the situations in the show no longer feel current. With their schedules full of arranged playdates and loads of homework, kids these days no longer have long stretches of free time. Indeed, the hours of unsupervised play constantly on display in Home Movies marks the show as coming from a different era. Parents don’t get divorced like they used to, either, at least not in the numbers and with the seeming acrimony of prior decades. That part of the show may, to an observer born after the biggest waves of divorce, feel almost alien.
But it’s in those declining divorce rates (now roughly the same as those in the early Seventies) that we can discover the persistent relevance of Home Movies for the discerning viewer. My generation (and Brendon Small’s) knows the damage done by broken marriages. I don’t know that we work harder at our marriages than our parents did; perhaps the sinister joke is that we’ve made ourselves even more miserable than our parents by not getting divorced. What is undeniable, though, is that more married couples are staying together.
That is, of course, if people get married or stay in long-term relationships (marriage of a traditional sort is not necessarily the desired outcome here) at all. Many of my friends, now in their mid-to-late thirties like me, are only just now preparing for that step; a not insignificant number of them won’t settle into that sort of relationship at all. My marriage—which started when I was 21 and is still going fifteen years later—is easily the anomaly. This shying away from such relationships, too, is liable to be due to those formative memories of too long days and too many shouting matches.
Then there are our children. We recall, or at least I do, the hours we were left on our own and seem to now do our level best to make certain that our children fill their idle space and time with us. Our childhoods had an endless cycle: we had so much time on our hands to heal precisely because of the things which necessitated that healing. I look at how little downtime my daughter’s generation has and I can’t help but think that those spaces between school and sleep are filled as they are because my generation remembers too well the bittersweet sting the absence of adults brings.
Because of its time capsule nature rather than despite it, Home Movies helps make sense of these traits by taking us back to those years, both unapologetically and with good humor. Whether dogged commitment to our relationships or eschewing them entirely, a massive number of us came to the rhythms of our adult relationships because of what we remember. Brendon Small and the other creators of Home Movies remember, too.