Journal to the Center of McGuirk: Filmmaking and the Found Family of Home Movies, Part Three
It’s cliché to say that being a teenager is about finding your identity. It’s maybe the most obvious, universal (and, for most, oversimplified) statement anyone could make about life. Unlike a lot of other milestones, we’re even pretty aware it’s happening to us, maybe because there are multiple subgenres of fiction dedicated to the human coming-of-age. As I said in part one of this weirdly personal essay about a cartoon show, I knew when I discovered Home Movies in its first season that this was my thing, this was for me. This was an entertainment product I could look into and see myself.
What we only realize with years and distance is how much more complex “coming-of-age” is than relating to jokes written by people older than us. Our identities are products of our relationships—our relationships with the people who raise us, with our friends, with our surroundings, with the art we consume, with the state of the world at the exact moment we’re in it. Some of these relationships last our entire lives and form our basic shapes, while others are fleeting brushes that leave a blip of new texture on our surfaces. Sometimes we’re even scathed just by observing other relationships near us.
Having fully fleshed out its characters through its second season, Home Movies begins its third by peeling back their layers and forcing them all to look inward. In the soft, dry fashion it had remained in comfortably since the pilot, the show doesn’t do any “Very Special” episodes or even call attention to its own subtle shift in focus. It’s unmistakable, though, when you look at the whole of these thirteen episodes, that the theme of the year is self-discovery. If season two was when the adults’ problems (Paula’s drinking, McGuirk’s jealousy) started intruding on the kids’ lives, season three is when the kids start noticing.
The season premiere, “Shore Leave”, sets the tone, with Melissa’s single father, Eric (voiced endearingly by Jonathan Katz) growing concerned about his daughter’s lack of female influence. “Do you ever worry about Brendon not having any strong male role models?” he asks Paula, who shrugs and sips her coffee before replying, “Nah.” Melissa spends a miserable week as part of the Fairy Princess Club, refusing to participate not only because the club is revealed to be a cultish pyramid scheme, but because she resents the gender definitions being forced upon her. “The thing is, Brendon’s the most positive female influence in my life,” she reassures her father. “I mean, look how he runs.” It’s not only one of the series’s funniest episodes, it sketches out a portrait of a girl refusing to conform, without ever announcing such grandiose intentions.
As with the first two seasons, I found a lot of parallels to my own life as I watched the third during my junior year of high school. I, too, was changing a lot of how I thought about myself. My best friend and I decided to try dating, as we spent so much time alone together (doing things like marathoning Home Movies) that all our friends were just waiting for it to happen. She was my first girlfriend, and the idea of someone wanting to date me was a monumental shift in my identity as the chubby, likeable-but-uncool nerd. It didn’t work, of course, and quickly turned fairly ugly in the way first relationships between teens tend to do. In the end, it felt like a doomed but necessary experiment in figuring ourselves out.
The relationships of Home Movies take the spotlight again in the episode “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do”, in which Paula’s mother (voiced by Jen Kirkman) announces her impending divorce. The kids react with surprise to the idea of grandparents splitting up, but Melissa reasons, “All parents get divorced sooner or later. It just took them longer.” A distraught Jason then fakes a divorce between his own unseen parents in an effort to fit in. It’s here that the show gently calls to attention the theme of abandonment that had been lurking throughout—Brendon has been dealing with the separate lives of his parents, Melissa’s mother left and is rarely mentioned, and Jason’s parents are so absent he often doesn’t know where they are and sometimes forgets their names. The show does little to spell out this motif for us, because the kids have accepted the status quo of their broken families, and only discuss it unknowingly within the always-relevant content of their films.
The inevitability of divorce was creeping into my own life in that junior year, even if I didn’t quite realize it at the time. My dad accepted a job on the other side of the state, leaving me to complete school and my mom to wonder about the state of their not-officially-ended marriage. Though they got along just fine, my parents had never seemed particularly close. It didn’t feel so strange for them to quietly start going their separate ways. The strange thing was the realization of how normal it seemed.
Brendon’s father slowly disappears throughout Home Movies’s third season. Having been a major presence in season two as he tried to force his fiancée, Linda, and Brendon to warm up to each other, Andrew appears only on the outskirts of season three. In his final appearance in “My Cheatin’ Heart”, Andrew thanks McGuirk for how he’s been helping Brendon, and though on the surface they’re discussing the episode’s golf-cheating plot, they’re actually speaking more broadly. “Well, Brendon’s a good kid. I like him,” McGuirk says, quietly showing how much he’s grown since season two.
The third season finale, “Coffins and Cradles”, finds Linda about to go into labor on Halloween, with Andrew absent on a business trip. Brendon gets distracted from the birth of his half-sibling when he finds out McGuirk has just been admitted to the same hospital after suffering a heart attack. With the coach waxing philosophical about living a better life while Jason goes mad from candy withdrawal, everyone seemingly stops wondering when Andrew will arrive, and his new child is finally born without him there. The thematic weight of his absence only becomes clear on repeat viewings of the series. He’s already failing this new family as he did his old, the cycle of gentle abandonment repeating, and no one seems to really notice. Andrew and Linda aren’t seen, or even mentioned, for the rest of the series. Brendon doesn’t realize it, but he’s made as much peace as he ever will with his father’s absence, preparing him for even bigger personal epiphanies as the show moves toward its final season.
My mom would tell me a few years later that my dad had accepted the cross-state job without telling her. When she had asked why, he had sheepishly replied, “If I’d asked, you would’ve said no.” I’m sure it didn’t help that I was spending more time out of the house, as that close circle of friends I had developed since freshman year was being split by graduation. Most of them were a year older than me, and were about to leave town. My dad had left, my pals were scattering, and my best friend had become my ex-girlfriend. Things were weird. I approached senior year with no idea what to expect.