“The Party” (season two, episode five; originally aired 2/3/2002)
Last week, the darker side of Brendon, Melissa, and Jason’s friendship was shown: the backbiting, the professional jealousies, the sleepover-based bribes. The first of this week’s Home Movies doubleheader demonstrates that, in spite of all those negatives, theirs is still a genuine friendship—it’s just one that’s realistically portrayed, albeit with nuances that are a few grades above the kids’ reading level. The true worth of that relationship comes to light, as these things often do, in the middle of a party gone horribly, horribly awry.
“The Party” begins with an excerpt from Brendon’s new ninja film, but the episode’s guts are less Hong Kong and more Harold Pinter. Once its center of attention moves to Fenton Muley’s 8th birthday party, “The Party” takes a turn for the theatrical, limiting the action to a single setting and juxtaposing a happy occasion with the ugliness of Fenton’s home life. Turns out Edward Albee is also on the guest list, as Jason gets into the sugar and simultaneously gets his George and Martha on, the show’s quick fix for being unable to depict its school-aged leads on a bender.
Fenton’s a curious quantity within the Home Movies universe: He’s a bully, but without the muscle of a Shannon. What Fenton has instead is seething, white-hot rage, courtesy of Sam Seder, the personification of the verb “kvetch.” The ire Seder currently directs at the targets of his political talk shows explodes from Fenton, flinging mortar at his put-upon mother, the kids who pretend to be his friends, and the world that won’t give him what he wants—and that’s everything. In anyone else’s hands, this character would be downright grating—but just as it manages to redeem a skirt-chasing soccer coach who shows up to a child’s birthday party with a case of Black Hole Brew, the Home Movies crew eventually finds some humanity within this tiny tyrant. It’s not on display in this episode; the humor of Fenton’s first appearance is his utter awfulness, bad behavior that prompts no less a bad example than John McGuirk to put down his beer and lay down the law. (Cue Mrs. Muley swooning.)
It dawned on me during “The Party” that Fenton and his mother are the Mirror Universe versions of Brendon and Paula. It’s not like Home Movies to go slapping goatees on characters, so this episode compares and contrasts the Muleys and Smalls through scenes from each family’s home life. Paula might treat Brendon like a kid two or three times his age, but there are boundaries to their relationship—and the way she’s written/the way Janine Ditullo plays the Small matriarch, Paula knows when to call Brendon on his shit. (Or how to keep him from cheaping out on his promise to make a birthday video for Fenton.)
Trudy Muley (not “Truly Muley”), on the other hand, is more of the Liane Cartman school of parenting. She’s terrified of her son, and he’s turned into a right monster because of it. Fenton walks all over Trudy during the birthday party, and when McGuirk steps up to keep things in order—as if it’s one of his soccer practices—there’s the implication that the kid acts like this because the coach’s fleetingly positive influence doesn’t affect Fenton like it affects Brendon. At least that’s how I choose to read Trudy’s reaction to McGuirk’s “Would you like to punch me in the stomach?” offer—who couldn’t say “Yes” to the man who finally says “No” to Fenton.
McGuirk’s Houdini routine is one of the fun little outcomes of the episode’s theatrical setup. The single setting gives a good feel for the easygoing directorial hand that guided the episode: As the focus of the episode glides throughout the Muley’s home, it’s as if the director (I’m unsure if this is something to attribute to Loren Bouchard—who gets the “director” credit here—or director of animation and video André Lyman) is guiding the camera (so to speak) like a spotlight across a stage, picking up multiple vignettes along the way. It builds to an illustration of Brendon’s relatively well-adjusted childhood, one that also illustrates that the bonds between Brendon, Melissa, and Jason—while frequently tested—are stronger than chocolate. And gummy bears. And that lollipop that gets stuck in Jason’s hair.
That thread is paid off in “The Party”’s lovely coda, a quiet bookend to compliment the ninjutsu chaos of the opening sequence. The background artists created the perfect purple, magic-hour haze, and Brendon Small’s budget-scale Explosions In The Sky impression “Sunset Theme” encompasses the warm, wistful feeling of heading into the night among friends. It’s the smooth chaser to the barbed pill of Fenton’s party, the reinforcement that Home Movies’ core trio don’t make “video films” because someone coerced them to—they make them because it would be fun and funny to climb telephone poles and repair them. Because then they can wear those hats…
“Impressions” (season two, episode six; originally aired 2/10/2002)
Home Movies evolves a sense of continuity so quietly, it’s legitimately surprising that we’re six episodes into the second season and Paula’s still unemployed. Multi-episode arcs aren’t unheard of in primetime animation—Daria eventually ensnared its titular character in a love triangle; King Of The Hill was always mindful of past happenings in Arlen—but within the cartoon-short- and sketch-comedy-indebted (and occasionally stoned) environment of Adult Swim, it’s a deviation from the norm. After all, when Home Movies was lacing Starboy and the Captain of Outerspace into the fabric of its second season, Sealab still blew up on a weekly basis.
The elements that carry over from episode to episode in the second season—Paula’s job search, the Starboy movie, Brendon’s pursuit of Cynthia, the big dad-related developments we’ll get to next week—don’t call attention to themselves. They’re handled much like Coach McGuirk’s first call to a former high-school classmate: Operating on the suggestion that life carries on in the spaces between episodes. These characters have a past, their world has a history; Home Movies doesn’t suffer from the Mike Chang Sr. syndrome. There’s no mapped-out, invested mythology behind that history, but the sense that Home Movies grows and matures with the viewer is a byproduct of stories that bridge a few episodes or an entire season.
While “The Party” and “Impressions” lay the groundwork for Brendon’s space-opera masterpiece, the latter applies one of the series’ favorite shades—self-delusion—to two of the second season’s major story arcs. The characters of Home Movies excel at lying to other people while mostly lying to themselves; “Impressions” plays out like a farce where the major players are caught in lies that are both external and internal. Literally, in one case: After lying about his looks and his job to a second long-lost high-school love, Coach McGuirk must then convince himself that, no matter what he looks like on the outside, he’s still “Disco John” (a.k.a. “Big John,” a.k.a. “John ‘Travolta’ McGuirk”) on the inside—and Disco John can still squeeze into tight, white bell bottoms.
I love how the episode fills in the coach’s high-school years: In an instance where the writers hand the reins to the animators, McGuirk’s years as an Afro-sporting Tony Manero wannabe are illustrated entirely through yearbook photos. He doesn’t rehash campus exploits during his phone calls with Lorraine and Allison—the photos do all the talking. Those conversations have an elegant way of relating information as well: Before McGuirk can even offer a salutation, he hears kids yelling at one another and a barking dog. That’s 20 years in the life of the woman formerly known as “Ally” explained in two minor sound effects. Likewise, McGuirk doesn’t have to elaborate on the various falsehoods he’s employed to secure a date with Lorraine because she does all the gabbing about his weight-lifting and successful Internet startup. Since Home Movies is a show that wastes no callback, you can assume that he’s played the “opera ticket” gambit with her—it’s merely icing on the cake when the voice on the other line says “I haven’t been to the opera in years.”
Yet for all the ways “Impressions” bends the truth, none of its big lies are told for wholly selfish reasons. Brendon, Paula, and McGuirk bend themselves into these uncomfortable positions out of some sense of accommodation: Brendon deceives Cynthia because he can’t turn down advice from Jason and Coach McGuirk; Paula pretends the test copy of her typing exam is her original work because she needs to support her family—and besides that, she doesn’t want to disappoint the guy the the horseshoe mustache. (It’s for similar reasons that Brendon alters Starboy And The Captain Of Outerspace to suit the whims of Scäb.) Only McGuirk receives anything resembling comeuppance, and he likely still made a profit by hocking those opera tickets.
Excepting the outcome of Brendon’s storyline, there’s a lack of Big Consequences to these actions, and I have to wonder if that contributes to Home Movies’ inability to appeal to a base wider than its cult audience. (An intelligent, discerning, kind, and generous cult audience, I might add.) These characters never win, but the impact of that never-winning accumulates into a coating of comedic dissatisfaction that spreads across all of Home Movies, rather than dotting the landscape at 22-minute intervals.
But could that impact be felt on Home Movies, even in an episode as well-constructed as “Impressions,” where the lies snowball until they collide in that hilarious phone call from country-club-detained Brendon to pariah-of-the-temp-agency Paula? This is still an episode that hits its highest notes in tangents like McGuirk and Brendon’s discussion of lying or the “Why?”s and “What?”s Brendon exchanges with the country club waiter. The more the series hones its storytelling chops, the more moments like these pop. And the pop of, say, Brendon declaring “Do you know who my father is?” (when the character himself couldn’t pick Jason’s dad out of a lineup) will always be more important than a Home Movies character receiving his or her just deserts.
Those consequences resonate deeply within Brendon, though. “I don’t lie all the time,” he tells Cynthia following the Country Club fiasco. “I just do it when I feel it’s important.” And at that point in “Impressions,” Brendon must now lie to himself about losing Cynthia. That leads to the second of this week’s excellent endings, as Brendon babbles, Woody Allen-like, through a montage of plots to win Cynthia back. But it’s too late, and he’s been hung out to dry on his own untruths. It’s a good thing he has Starboy And The Captain Of Outerspace to distract him—that and the bigger life event that takes up both of next week’s episodes. Until then, he’ll need to, as they say, be left alone to process this to a point of understandingness.
- The kids’ ninja outfits correspond to their everyday wardrobe, but the colors also match their equivalents within the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Brendon leads, Melissa does machines (that’s sort of a fact, Jack—she’s at least the smartest of the bunch), and Jason is a party dude. Since McGuirk wears red—in addition to being cool and rude—he’s Raphael.
- Before a reminder of the film’s actual title, I took notes about Brendon’s preparations for Starboy And Captain Spaceship. Totally different thing.
- The Muleys’ refusal to call Brendon’s movies either “videos” or “films” is one of life’s simplest pleasures.
- Either the text in McGuirk’s yearbook came straight from a primary source or someone in the art department recreated the banal, inside-joke-laden memories of high-school seniors to an uncanny degree.
- A transcript of the invitation to Fenton’s party, which mixes well with Brendon Small’s goofy-as-fuck “The Birthday Song”: “Jolly jeepers, ain’t it great? Fenton Muley’s turning 8. Eat some ice cream, eat some cake: Jeepers jolly, ain’t it great?”
- Brendon Small must’ve had his ear to the musical pavement, because he was writing first-draft Kanye West lyrics a good year-plus before the release of “Through The Wire”: “My presence was requested, so I’m bringing my presences. My presence is the gift.”
- The latest in an ongoing series of potential epitaphs for Coach John McGuirk: “I’m like a sexless John Glenn.”