“Method Of Acting” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 9/16/2001) and “Life Through A Fish Eye Lens” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 9/23/2001)
I distinctly recall where I was the moment I realized my parents had parents of my own. It was in the living room of my maternal grandparents’ house, and I recall hearing my father refer to my grandpa as “dad.” I was far too young to know the particulars of how one becomes a parent, but a switch was flipped in my still-developing mind: “If I have a mom and a dad, that means everyone else in the world has one—and even when you’re a parent, you’re still a kid to those parents.” Of course, the “everyone has a mom and dad” part is only true in the technical sense (give me some credit here: I think I made this realization when I was kindergarten, and probably did so during a Muppet Babies commercial break, so nuance doesn’t enter into it), but this had a fundamental effect on how I viewed the world. A couple decades later, it boils down to this: Everyone was a child at some point in time, and, if they’re fortunate enough, they have parents upon which they can rely even after they’re adults.
Applying that logic to the world of Home Movies is a dicier prospect, because the child-parent dynamic is so fluid in the Small household. In “Life Through A Fisheye Lens,” however, Brendon catches Paula talking into a banana, and once he gets the requisite wisecracking out of the way (“Are you talking to me? Should I pick up a tangerine and listen?”), he comes to understand that his mom is rehearsing to ask her parents for a loan—an echo of Brendon’s own preparations to ask Paula to buy him a fisheye lens for his camera. The scene solidifies Brendon’s unique relationship with his mother through a simple acknowledgement: Paula is someone’s child, too. Not that Home Movies needs this kind of grounding to make scenes like this funny—but it’s that grounding that displays the show’s commitment to bringing its characters to life.
How much empathy are we supposed to have Paula—or Coach McGuirk? As the two characters among the main Home Movies ensemble who can legally drive a car (but are also financially responsible for those automobiles—provided they have access to them), theirs are the situations with which adult viewers should readily identify. But there are sympathetic underpinnings to Paula’s storylines in this week’s pair of episodes that illustrate the series’ braintrust realizing that Paula is the character the viewer should be laughing with, while McGuirk (at this point in the series, at least) is the one we can laugh at. The animators responded in kind, portraying an exaggeratedly exhausted Paula, reading glasses perched on her nonexistent nose, pecking away at an adding machine in “Life Through A Fisheye Lens.” For her part, Janine Ditullio sounds one heavy sigh away from total resignation in that episode as well as “Method Of Acting,” her inability to remember any of her creative-writing students’ names the result of the fact she’s teaching only as a last resort.
McGuirk, meanwhile, will become a more sympathetic figure with time, but compared to Paula’s dire, authentically communicated financial straits, his scheme to conscript his students into filling out entry forms for a hovercraft giveaway marks the coach as pure comic relief this week. In a separate con, he manages to inspire a victory on the pitch with a story about a fake mentor, though he does so mostly to make himself, not the kids, feel better. That these plots are as enjoyable and engaging as anything Brendon does in “Method Of Acting” and “Life Through A Fisheye Lens” is one of the greater advantages of Home Movies’ “kids will be grown-ups/grown-ups will be kids” setup.
The “Coach Ralph” story runs parallel with Brendon’s fixation on the fisheye lens at Barlow’s Film & Video Supplies—both involve characters using flimsy devices to fool onlookers. It’s ironic that our 8-year-old Hype Williams wannabe is the one who sees through McGuirk’s ruse the entire time, earning himself some additional lens money via a bet with Melissa over the truthfulness of McGuirk’s story. More and more as this first season proceeds, Brendon uses his artistic pursuits to alter, improve upon, or escape from his less-than-ideal reality. The sci-fi movie isn’t working? Throw a fisheye lens at it. Can’t be a great director and a great actor? Take some acting classes. Want to make a movie, but Melissa isn’t available? Dress up like a pretty lady. A very pretty lady.
Of course, digging into the themes and character-based material of “Method Of Acting” and “Life Through A Fisheye Lens” obscures how deeply funny these half-hours are—as that bit of private (yet constantly public) footage of Brendon in drag attests. McGuirk’s hovercraft dreams are deflated in spectacular fashion; given the chance to direct Brendon and Melissa in some acting exercises, Jason is immediately intoxicated with power; in the second of his three failed attempts to secure employment, Brendon ends up shredding every file in Erik’s real-estate office, in addition to some Romaine lettuce, a tortilla, and plum—but not the pit. (“One of the things I’m most proud of as a parent is that I’ve never struck a child,” Jonathan Katz wryly replies. “But I’m willing to be proud of something else today.” Home Movies is never afraid to indulge its darker inclinations.) Despite excluding all of the regulars save for Paula, the creative-writing class is a limitless source of laughs, with Bill Braudis filling out its ranks as a handful of pretentious coffee-shop bards, poseurs, and one guy with a news anchors’ haircut who tries to pass off a newspaper article as original poetry. It’s in this instance where Paula’s experience as a parent truly comes in handy: she’s not great with looking past Brendon’s watery puppy-dog eyes, but she can smell when someone’s trying to sell her a load of bullshit with minimal effort. This week’s episodes illustrate that Paula is still someone else’s daughter, but she also gets to assert her motherhood. After all, she’s the one who ultimately pays for the ice cream.
- Paula’s forgetfulness with her students’ names is a fun running gag, but it probably also decreased the pressure of improvising the dialogue in those scenes. With less information to remember, Janine Ditullio was freer to act and react in the moment.
- I picked on Home Movies’ sense of character design a few weeks back, but there are some enchantingly Muppet-like characters populating the backgrounds of “Method Of Acting” and “Life Through A Fisheye Lens.” In general, the show’s visuals are coming into their own; I really enjoy the way Brendon’s pupils go googly whenever he mentions the fisheye lens to Paula. Also enjoyable: The sight of shellshocked Erik curled up in a nest of shredded documents.
- This week in “John McGuirk says more about himself than he realizes”: Brendon: “Isn’t a tie the same thing as kissing your sister?” McGurik: [Unfazed.] “Yeah.” Also: “I don’t loan money to 8-year-olds—anymore.”