“Brendon Gets Rabies” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 5/17/1999) and “Yoko” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 5/24/1999)
It could’ve ended here. After five weeks of middling ratings, Home Movies was canned by UPN, offering up its unintentional (and temporary) swan song with an episode where Brendon pays tribute to one of the greatest movie endings of all time. The condensed remake of Casablanca filmed near the conclusion of “Yoko” is the only real note of finality Home Movies offered before its Adult Swim resurrection the following year. It’s intended as an expression of Brendon’s heartbreak over losing Loni (Laura “Sister of Sarah” Silverman) to Mitch (the late, great Mitch Hedberg), but it also serves as an elegy of sorts for the show’s brief network run. “You gotta get out of here… You gotta leave, you gotta split, see,” Brendon-as-Bogart tells Melissa-as-Bergman-by-way-of-Loni, as if Brendon Small himself knew the show wasn’t the right fit for UPN. Illustrating his bona fides as a budding cineaste, Small’s animated alter ego prompts Duane to “play that old number” (rather than dropping a “Play it again, Duane,” like some uncultured second grader)—to which Duane responds with a contemplative, piano-lounge take on the Home Movies theme. It’s a powerful moment, if only for the thought that the cast and crew of Home Movies would hear the show’s theme song as a reminder of happier times, the same way Casablanca’s use of “As Time Goes By” represents Rick and Ilsa’s romantic fling in Paris.
And then the scene ends with the implication that Brendon would just as soon watch his ex drink urine as let her go back to her old boyfriend. At its tenderest and most reflective, Home Movies remains skeptical of childhood innocence. I have to wonder if this point-of-view is one of the reasons the show was destined to live on (and be resurrected) as a cult object. There’s an occasional sweetness to the series—most often glimpsed in scenes between Brendon and Paula, like the “sometimes I forget you’re just a little kid” exchange in “Brendon Gets Rabies”—but Brendon, Melissa, and Jason can be impulsive, vindictive, petty little creatures. (Of the many echoes of Peanuts resonating throughout Home Movies, this is the loudest.) Played and written by adults, the series’ kids are given adult traits and adult opinions that provide insight as well as juxtaposed laughs. In “Brendon Gets Rabies,” the titular character’s navel-gazing ends in a development that might appeal to the basest of Snoopy’s instincts: the death of a cat.
But Brendon isn’t a sociopath, and the fate of Alexandre (a name pronounced as if the final syllables are adhered to the soft palate) weighs heavily on the kid’s conscious. Sweetness creeps further into “Brendon Gets Rabies” through his video eulogy for the dead cat, though it’s tempered by Jason’s brilliantly twisted aphorism, “When you search for something, don’t find it, because when you find it, it has rabies.” Just as Home Movies is being prepared for the chopping block (presumably to make room on the fall 1999 schedule for quality UPN programming like the Jake-Busey-as-aspiring-rap-rocker vehicle, Shasta McNasty), its squiggly characters are becoming more recognizably human. Brendon learns a lesson about personal responsibility in “Brendon Gets Rabies,” then struggles with issues of loyalty and first love in “Yoko.” Because of the off-the-cuff nature of the show’s production, its characters arrived in lumpier forms than the average TV players. They were just beginning to take shape, becoming more than just another set of wise-beyond-their-years kids and clueless adults, when UPN pulled the plug.
A further argument in favor of the show’s stay of execution: The opening sequence of “Yoko,” which takes place almost entirely in the dark or in silhouette. In addition to keeping the episode’s animation budget in check, limiting the visuals to blinking eyeballs and shadows makes for a fun execution of a standard campsite setup. (It’s a bold decision, too, considering the amount of time the sequence spends in the dark.) The overlapping dialogue of Home Movies mines a lot of comedy from confusion over who’s speaking at any given time (later glimpsed in this spectacular walkie talkie conversation from the third season), and shrouding the characters in darkness is a nicely picked-up cue from the voice cast to the animators. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Home Movies’ sense of character design (Why does Melissa look like an extraterrestrial in profile? Why must her eyes sit on top of her head, like she’s a Muppet monster?), but the fact the viewer can distinguish who’s talking by the shape of the character’s eyes is another nice touch. And, as an added bonus, no one has to watch Eugene wiz in Coach McGurk’s canteen.
Of course, for all the character development in these episodes and funny moments around the campfire or in the basement, if these represented the final half-hours of Home Movies, the show’s following would be much smaller and far less fervent. The retroscripting process produces the occasional comedic gem, but it also strands the characters in scenes like the one that introduces Alexandre and his dull, dull, dull owners. (Notice how quickly the audio fades and the visuals dissolve during Paula’s battery of questions for the Peabodys.) While the series is showing confidence in its main ensemble, it’s also preoccupied with introducing characters that fill out the neighborhood or schoolyard for a half-hour, before disappearing into the ether. Fortunately, this is the only time we’ll ever see or hear from the Peabodys; as nice as it is to hear from Hedberg in 2012, only one of the characters he plays in this week’s episodes—the fifth grader who steals Loni back from Brendon—leaves an impression. Eugene would return for an additional episode in the fourth season, but here he’s mostly clearing a path for later, unintelligible, heavily accented hijinks from Junior Adelberg.
Thankfully, “Brendon Gets Rabies” and “Yoko” aren’t the last word on Home Movies, as executives at Cartoon Network saw the promise within the show’s first five episodes, and opted to blow new life into its sails. Because the problems of three movie-making kids, an apathetic divorcée, and an alcoholic soccer coach could amount to a hill of beans—and more—in this crazy world. It just required more time for the people behind those characters to cement their relationships and find recurring players that could provide the proper amount of support and memorable laughs. Here’s looking at you, kids—we’ll see you in a year in TV time, and a week in real time.
- Fun with Eugene and broken English, in the wake of the Pee Pee Breath prank: “It is practically joke.” Mispronunciations and weird accents are such hacky components of comedy, but Home Movies manages to make them funny. Perhaps it’s because the people with the accents aren’t the butts of the joke; when Brendon ridicules the way Junior talks, it’s the former who’s made to look like a fool.
- “I put an extra ‘o’ in the ‘good’ because it’s so good.” Only Mitch Hedberg could make a line like that sound so effortless.
- Brendon’s nursing a Humphrey Bogart fixation in “Yoko”: High on infatuation prior to the Casablanca homage, he assumes the role of Philip Marlowe to free Loni from Jason’s Snidely Whiplash-like villain. Presumably he snaps out of his personal funk before he can get all grizzled and world-weary enough for a take on The African Queen.