Journal to the Center of McGuirk: Filmmaking and the Found Family of Home Movies, Part One
I was fourteen, starting eighth grade and the world made no sense whatsoever. That year before high school begins is a dumpster fire of terrifying self-discovery for everyone, but mine happened to kick off in the fall of 2001. I didn’t exactly make this connection at the time, but it was a hell of a thing to feel like the entire world was going through some sick, tragic puberty on a massive scale, just as I was realizing I couldn’t even trust my own body anymore. Bear with me here—I swear this all relates to cartoons.
Like most junior high boys, I found myself gravitating toward all things edgy. I never really got up to any delinquent behavior, but I was just dangerous enough to be intrigued by cartoons cussing on the TV. It was the dawn of Adult Swim, and I was exactly the right blend of animation nerd and angsty teen to be thrilled by this illicit new world of dangerous, anti-establishment programming, but I needed my mom’s help.
Our home on the secluded shore of Lake Metigoshe couldn’t get Cartoon Network, but when she went into town to work the night shift at the nursing home, Mom would bring a VHS tape with her and record the entire Adult Swim block in the empty resident TV room for me. The next night, after she had gone to work again and my dad had fallen asleep early as usual, I would play the tape back and inject the experimental cartoons into my eyeballs like a junkie in the dirtiest of back alleys.
The main attraction, of course, was Brak. I had been a Space Ghost fan since I was ten (those four years are a lifetime at that age), and the news of my bean-eating cat monkey idol getting his own show was life-changing. The Brak Show ended up being, well, fine. But after Brak’s rapid-fire shouting and singing came a quiet, stuttering show of stilted conversations and animation that gave only the subtlest suggestion of movement. It was Home Movies, and I was uncertain but intrigued.
Now, here’s another thing about coming of age at the dawn of the millennium which was seismically important to me: the advent of DVD. For the first time, films were available not only in a slick, pristine, uncropped presentation, but accompanied by archives of bonus material. That very Christmas, we got a player and our first stack of discs, and from that moment I was a behind-the-scenes documentary enthusiast, a deleted scene hound and a commentary slut. The art and craft of filmmaking was suddenly blown wide open, and at just the perfect time for my blossoming self to realize a truth that would become a cornerstone of my personality forever: I frigging love movies.
This is why, even though the shoestring budget look of Squigglevision and the dry improvisation of the dialogue were initially off-putting, I kept coming back to Home Movies on each of those tapes my mom made. When you’re in your early teens, nothing is more exciting than seizing onto a piece of culture you discovered on your own and seeing yourself in it. Here was a show about a redheaded kid processing the world around him by making videos on the family camcorder, blending thinly-veiled metaphors for his personal struggles with ripoffs of his favorite classics. His reach exceeded his grasp, his mom was his most trusted confidant, and he was just slightly aware that he was more pretentious than he had any right to be. This was, quite literally, a show about me.
All this I knew at the time. There were plenty of obvious reasons for me to be slowly falling in love with Home Movies. But each time I binge watch it—as I have countless times these past fifteen years—some new connection that had been subconscious screams out to me. As a teen, I knew it was the show I wanted to see. As an adult, I realize it was the show I needed to see.
Home Movies is a story about finding a family, or rather, about looking around and realizing you’ve found one without meaning to. The very first episode, “Get Away From My Mom”, introduces the characters through the lens of the Small family's broken home. Brendon is uncomfortable with his mom, Paula (Paula Poundstone), dating his soccer coach John McGuirk (H. Jon Benjamin), and it’s all a very conventional sitcom plot. But what becomes clear on repeat viewings is that this first episode subtly sows the seeds of some character arcs far deeper and more thoughtful than one might expect from a squiggly cartoon show airing after midnight. We meet a woman who is going to realize she is only desperate for a date because it’s what she’s supposed to want, a man uncomfortable with commitment who will grow attached to the family he keeps colliding with, and a boy rejecting a father figure because his definition of what a father is needs to be expanded. In short, it’s the story of people realizing sitcoms are bullshit, as told in the format of a sitcom.
The first season doesn’t get too deep into its characters’ psyches, but gently takes its time settling us into the status quo of their lives. I don’t think creators Loren Bouchard and Brendon Small (who voices, you guessed it, Brendon Small) set out to tell a coming-of-age story. They just gathered some talented comedians who improvised characters and stories, until eventually falling into a groove. The first six episodes, which aired on UPN to disastrous ratings before Adult Swim rescued the show from cancellation, had no script, no outline and just raw improv. Once the performers had settled into their characters, the creators began plotting stories and gradually a solid framework developed. But the show never lost that freestyle feeling, and its organic nature is what makes it feel so startlingly fresh, even to this day.
By the time the first season of Home Movies got another go around in reruns, our rural cable package had acquired Cartoon Network, and I was able to make the show appointment viewing. I started high school, and for the first time I found myself developing a small but inseparable gang of pals who became as formative to my identity as my burgeoning film geekness. On weekends, we’d go on aimless adventures with my camcorder, making goofy skits and parodies, generally capturing our Midwestern teenage ennui on stacks of VHS-C I’d be mortified to revisit later. I set the camera to crop our footage to faux 16:9 widescreen and half-jokingly referred to what we were doing as “my early work.”
The quality of these experiments didn’t matter. What mattered to me was that I was the "Movie Guy." I had good friends I loved spending time with and I was committing my own adolescence to video. And I’d recommend the show to them. “Watch Home Movies. That’s totally us,” I’d say. “The only difference between me and Brendon is that my parents aren’t divorced.”
The Season One finale finds Brendon suddenly realizing that his work is betraying his subconscious desire to learn more about his heretofore unmentioned father. In an uncharacteristically dramatic move, the season ends on a cliffhanger, the phone ringing with the dad on the other end. I watched this episode for the first time in a late-night rerun, my mom working the nightshift again, my dad asleep long before me, the house quiet and dark. I had gotten used to it by this point, our scattershot schedules making us a family who rarely found themselves in the same room at the same time. It seemed normal then, and just as I had no idea where the second season of my favorite show might go, I hadn’t even considered the path my parents were on.
Home Movies and high school for Andrew get more complex from there. Stay tuned for Part Two of Journal to the Center of McGuirk.