“Writer’s Block” (season two, episode 11; originally aired 3/17/2002)/“Pizza Club” (season two, episode 12; originally aired 3/24/2002)
The deeper you get into Home Movies' second season, the clearer it becomes that the unmooring of John McGuirk accounts for one of the major threads of these 13 episodes. Now, Coach McGuirk started out substantially unmoored: He’s an anti-role model throughout the series’ first season, so generally irresponsible that he can’t even keep a goldfish alive. But as Brendon grows closer to Andrew, McGuirk slips further along a downward spiral, winding up as the sleepless wreck portrayed in “Writer’s Block.”
Like Sammy the goldfish or the aged pooch Mr. Freckles, Brendon gives the coach a purpose—more so than their actual reason for interacting in the first place. Coach McGuirk doesn’t care for soccer, and he doesn’t care for most of the kids on his team, but there’s a connection between Brendon—and to a lesser extent Melissa—that keeps him on the straight and narrow. And so the second season has him attending Fenton’s birthday party, enrolling in a Big Brothers, Big Sisters-type organization, and acting out when he’s not included in Brendon’s extra-soccer activities. Because, deep down inside, he cares for the kid, but also because his personal life is crumbling elsewhere: He’s lonely, he’s broke, and at the start of “Writer’s Block,” he’s working on multiple days without any sleep.
So what’s keeping the character from devolving into outright tragedy? H. Jon Benjamin’s performance, for one: Across multiple series and a handful of roles, the actor has proven his ability to locate the charm within the most irredeemable of assholes. (On Lucy, The Daughter Of The Devil, he even made Old Scratch a personification of evil that you could root for.) He’s not bad, he’s just drawn, written, and improvised that way, and there’s relatable yearning in Benjamin’s vocalization that cuts through even the most petty of McGuirk’s tantrums in “Pizza Club.”
There’s also the matter of the selfish way in which the character conducts himself, a childlike narcissism that earns laughs when it backfires and sympathy when the intentions are pure. The grotesque transformation he undergoes with every sleepless “Writer’s Block” night is pitiable at first—but then that first $150 check from the sleep study flips the comedy switch, locking McGuirk’s base instincts into a battle with his own body. That selfishness is often countered with a genuine heart and humanity, though it’s hard to find that in “Writer’s Block,” which is broadly sketched and less-grounded than most Home Movies installments. That’s the character-driven nature of the series at work: Spend enough time with a fictional figure and even their most detestable actions come from a recognizable place.
In “Pizza Club,” that means wanting more than anything to play a part in someone else’s life, an opportunity that’s less frequent with Andrew around. Brendon’s pizzeria appointments with his dad play like the kind of bonding experience a real-life divorcé would undertake with his son; it’s also an opportunity McGuirk would grow legitimately envious of, masking his feelings in a love for cheesy Italian entrees. “Pizza Club” makes its “dual fathers” theme explicit through Brendon’s “My Two Dads meets The Fugitive” movie, though Paula’s intrusions on the production keep those scenes from being too transparent. The exclusion of McGuirk—who starts his own pizza club with Walter and Perry, who both eagerly lay claim to lactose intolerance—echoes the themes of “Dad,” but “Pizza Club” performs a bit of escalation through Paula. Brendon’s suddenly less available than he once was and Paula has more time on her hands, the factors for a perfect, movie-ruining storm.
The sleep-study plot in “Writer’s Block” is less successful, but it does lead to a great one-line exclamation from McGuirk: “DVD! DVD!” “Writer’s Block” as a whole is like that: The only storyline that’s solid from end to end is Paula’s, which finds her banging away at a typewriter, composing a romance novel that wouldn’t meet the lax quality-control restrictions of the Internet’s least-reputable slash-fiction publishers. The Internet being what it is, I’m both fearful and curious to know if any Home Movies superfan has filled in the spaces of the romance between Fabio stand-in Dr. Lockwood and the novel’s Paula surrogate, Sheila. As is, punctuating Paula’s purple, sub-erotic prose with declarations of “This is good!” does the comedic trick. By the end of the episode, Paula isn’t using the phrase to convince herself of her talent—it’s like she’s putting it out into the universe, trying to will the novel into a form of indisputable greatness. And it almost works, considering that Brendon issues his own “This is good!” after taking a look at the manuscript on the “good artists steal” advice of Coach McGuirk.
“Writer’s Block” is about flailing away at a single goal and hoping for a breakthrough; the resulting product accurately reflects that process and embodies its frustration. The disparities in the characters’ breakthroughs make for some good laughs, though: No attempt to chip away at Brendon’s writer’s block is as fruitful as the improvised bluff the kids perform at Mr. Lynch’s writers’ fair. After spending the episode feeling so fulfilled, productive, and talented, Paula’s internal editor kicks in at the height of Lockwood and Sheila’s grand (and big and vast) getaway to the big and vast Grand Canyon. McGuirk, meanwhile, denies his breakthrough, $150 and his negligible willpower no match for the force of sheer exhaustion.
The sleep study is the quintessential John McGuirk scam, the laziest paycheck he’s ever made. And in quintessentially John McGuirk fashion, he doesn’t quit while he’s ahead. Two full seasons of fucking up remain, but the zombified McGuirk who fights back the med students represents a low ebb for the character. And it isn’t even that low, because in both “Writer’s Block” and “Pizza Club,” he gets what he wants: Sleep, pizza, and companionship. You can’t say that for Brendon, who doesn’t get over his writer’s block or Cynthia; similarly, Paula doesn’t contribute to Western literature or Brendon’s movies in any meaningful way. He may be unmoored, but you can’t truly consider someone like McGuirk, who has so many tiny victories under his belt, a loser. That he notches these wins makes him feel more human; that he earns them makes him a great character.
- In terms of pure parody, the documentary Brendon makes about Scäb is one of Home Movies’ best send-ups. The emotionally manipulative guitar score could be ripped straight from VH1’s Behind The Music, and the narration, with its pretensions toward insight contrasted by Dwayne’s lack of the stuff, echoes from any rockumentary whose desire for depth is undercut by the subject’s shallowness. (And now that it’s been spelled out on a chyron, I suppose I should start spelling Dwayne’s name properly.)
- This is a weird place to notice improved animation, but there’s a remarkable smoothness and detail in the way McGuirk’s fingers crumple during his “DVD!” breakdown.
- Important background info on Brendon’s production methods: He has Jason signed to a 34,000-picture deal.
- Mr. Lynch stole Pee-wee Herman’s bike! And then replaced the tiger’s head with that of Home Movies’ signature lawn gnome! And then Coach McGuirk stole it for Brendon!
- Everybody sing! “Rice is nice, but it’s just a grain / I like rice, so I’m not insane!” [Jazz hands.]
- Brendon’s methods for breaking the writer’s block give Melissa and Jason pause: “I tapped into a very creative part of my brain last night.” “That sounds awful.” “Uh, Brendon, did you use a drill?”
- Choice excerpt from the miserablist drama that precedes “Rice Is Nice” at the writers’ fair: “The horse bit me again and foamed at the mouth.”
- Soccer tips from Coach John McGuirk: “Everyone on my team play the game of soccer!”
- Better bit of purple prose from Paula: Lockwood’s line about looking down Sheila’s throat and into her soul, or his analogy about the disposable camera? Defend your favorite in the comments.