When Adult Swim ordered a second season of Home Movies, the show wasn’t just granted a second chance—it was granted the opportunity to be reborn. There are incremental differences between the first five episodes of season one (the episodes that aired on UPN) and the following eight (the first half hours that were commissioned by Adult Swim), but “Politics” truly draws the line between Home Movies’ undistinguished spell on a network and its fruitful run on cable. Some of that sensation is superficial—the transition between Squigglevision and a less wiggly form of Flash animation being the most obvious. But there’s much going on beneath the surface of “Politics” and “Identifying A Body” that signifies an animated program taking its first, uncertain steps into adolescence. And like most adolescences, Home Movies’ involves some letdowns. It also involves at least one school election.
The first two episodes of Home Movies’ second season don’t function like secondary pilots for the series, but they also don’t come off like the work of a production team that’s found its sea legs. Part of that is due to a behind-the-scenes decision to tighten up the show’s scripting: Improvisation and spontaneity would be a crucial element of the series until its conclusion, but there’s a much more rigorous path laid out for “Politics” and “Identifying A Body” than there was for previous episodes. These are the first episodes of Home Movies where a logline isn’t just a jumping-off point for loose conversations between Brendon Small, H. Jon Benjamin, Melissa Glasky, and Janine Ditullio. The events that unfold in “Politics” and “Identifying A Body” can legitimately and succinctly be summed up in a capsule-ready sentence or two. In “Politics,” Brendon runs for student-body president, but his administration undermined by corruption. In “Identifying A Body,” Brendon and Coach McGuirk take a road trip to ID McGuirk’s deceased uncle, picking up some important pointers about money along the way. There are subplots and short, character-based digressions along the way, but each of these episodes is committed to story in a way Home Movies hadn’t attempted before—and it benefits and damages each installment to varying degrees.
“Politics” (season two, episode one; originally aired 1/6/2002)
My major misgiving about “Politics” stems from the way it makes Brendon a secondary player in his own story. While Home Movies would eventually develop a rich and rewarding supporting cast—and had taken crucial steps toward doing so in its first season—it feels odd to watch a second-season première where so much of the action is handed over to Emo Philips’ Shannon. Don’t get me wrong: Philips’ voice work is, as ever, hilarious, and the montage in which he abuses the privileges afforded by Brendon’s presidency is equally funny. However, it also comes off like the credit sequence for an un-produced, Shannon-centric spin-off. Home Movies deserves to be commended for giving itself enough room to devote such attention to a background character. But to do so after so much of Brendon’s soul is bared in “Brendon’s Choice” is a bit of a cheat.
Amplifying this impression is the fact that precious little of the “class president” plot originates from or informs Brendon’s character. Home Movies often succeeded at taking standard sitcom plots, lowering their stakes, drying out the humor, and filtering them through the perspective of the show’s main characters, but Brendon is never fully engaged in his candidacy, and that sucks some of the fun out of such a story. The political maneuvering and the revelations of Shannon’s wrongdoing never achieve the same heights of amusement as the “this box is my platform” discussion or any of the “Politics” scenes set at the Small family dinner table. These are all moments grounded in character and relationships, the types of material Home Movies excels at spinning into gold. For its first shot a “big” storyline, the show took on a plot with a high level of difficulty—political intrigue—so some degree of whiffing should be expected.
However, the class-president storyline does manage to get off the ground when it feeds into Paula’s own meteoric rise to “best teacher of the year”—a qualification she didn’t earn because, technically, her creative-writing students gave her a bouquet of flowers for being the “nicest teacher of the month.” I’m a big fan of watching the tiniest scraps of prestige or power go to someone’s head, and Paula—so frequently beat down by life—takes these small tokens of her students’ affection to extremes, keeping the flowers around longer than the laws of nature will allow. She also uses them to block some of the more unpleasant aspects of single motherhood—like the whole “having children who depend on you for sustenance and care” thing—from view. It’s the details that make Paula’s part of “Politics” sing, and the details are what Home Movies is all about: Lynch and Shannon’s shared affinity for Frank Sinatra, for instance, or Brendon, Melissa, and Jason’s five-seconds-too-long celebration over Shannon’s apparent defeat. It’s these facets that the show could capture most easily and most effectively at this point in its run—but in a valiant effort at widening the show’s frame, “Politics” makes the sharpest qualities of Home Movies look a little fuzzy.
“Identifying A Body” (season two, episode two; originally aired 1/13/2002)
It takes Coach McGuirk five minutes to arrive on the scene in “Politics”—and the wait is agonizing. And though it provides ample opportunity for surly laughs from H. Jon Benjamin, the coach’s attempt at reinventing himself as a stand-up comedian has the same rate of success as Brendon’s time within the corridors of power. (Though McGuirk’s soccer-practice crowd work influencing Brendon’s failed interactions with his electorate is a nice bit of foreshadowing.) The series’ best character (in his mind and the viewer’s) is better served by “Identifying A Body,” in which some seemingly worthless encased meat teaches McGuirk the value of family.
Or something like that: The plot involving the coach and Brendon’s expensive trip to the morgue is largely a framework to wring jokes from Home Movies’ most enjoyable pairing, and for that you’ll hear no complaints from me. This is how you integrate more structured storytelling into a show like Home Movies, as Brendon’s misplaced admiration and dangerous level of trust in his soccer coach leads to a grand adventure and an emptied charity coffer. We’ll meet Brendon’s father in a few weeks, and though no male figure will prove as important to the kid as McGuirk does, the winding path McGuirk leads Brendon down in “Identifying A Body” underlines the necessity of getting Andrew Small back in the picture. If only to keep the boy from hanging out with any more corpses…
“Identifying A Body” is more tangent-prone than “Politics,” but it ekes a great mission statement for Home Movies out of the trip to the morgue. “Believe me, when you get older, this is going to disturb you,” McGuirk says about staring into the gray visage of his Uncle Pedro. “Not that I’m not totally disturbed now,” Brendon responds. He stops there, as is the series’ M.O.: As tempted as we may be to connect the threads of these episodes to the previous season or the two-plus seasons to come, this is a show that exists in the moment. It’s loose, improvisational nature demands that it do so. Other shows might be tempted to predict how such an unsettling event like that would lead to Brendon’s dysfunctional adulthood, but Home Movies is 100 percent invested in the fucked-up nature of his childhood. Which is good, because there’s no way Future Brendon is as funny as Present Brendon playacting through Paula’s request for a raise.
That’s why the details and reactions matter so much to Home Movies’ overall sense of humor, and it’s why it feels so strange to throw to a frigid Walter and Perry for 30 seconds or devote a minute to running Andy Kindler’s Mr. Lindenson through a gauntlet of cartoon slapstick. The latter factors in to Paula’s attempt to get a raise, but the former is pretty much there to pad out the running time. And with so much of “Identifying A Body”’s energy thrown into maintaing the momentum in McGuirk’s and the Smalls’ “money problems” plots, these moments stick out like sore thumbs.
But neither “Politics” or “Identifying A Body” are bad episodes. What they lack in quotable lines or storylines that play to their characters’ strengths can be compensated for if you remember that Brendon Small, Loren Bouchard, and company were essentially teaching themselves how to make a new Home Movies. They wanted a more coherent method of storytelling, and they’d eventually find it—they just had to get through a few bum experiments. Because sometimes, before you ask for a raise, you have to do a run-through that involves putting your son in googly-eyed glasses. “Politics” and “Identifying A Body” are those test runs—but unlike Paula, they get Home Movies closer to paydirt.