With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.
Before NBC saved Brooklyn Nine-Nine, before full-scale original-cast revivals were a regular TV thing, even before rerun ratings and DVD sales pulled Family Guy and Futurama back off of the shelf, there was Home Movies. The humble animated comedy about an aspiring young filmmaker played by and named Brendon Small had an undistinguished run on UPN, at a time when the broadcast networks were investing in other, short-lived animated series like Mission Hill, Baby Blues, and The Oblongs. Adult Swim would later pick up the unaired inventories of all four shows, but only Home Movies would live on beyond that. Before such resurrections were commonplace, Cartoon Network’s upstart late-night block turned Brendon Small’s camera back on.
Created by Small and eventual Bob’s Burgers boss Loren Bouchard, Home Movies was a quiet outlier on its second TV home. The average episode revolves around Brendon’s latest project, assisted and co-starring his best friends Melissa (Melissa Bardin Galsky) and Jason (H. Jon Benjamin) and usually inspired by or reflecting the events in Brendon’s home and school lives. He lives with his mother, creative-writing teacher Paula (Paula Poundstone in the UPN episodes, then Janine Ditullio), and infant sister Josie, and plays poorly for a lousy soccer team coached with maximum indifference by John McGuirk (also Benjamin). Taking cues from its predecessor at Tom Snyder’s Soup2Nuts production house, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Home Movies was initially produced in Dr. Katz’s signature Squigglevision style, while also utilizing its process of “retroscripting,” in which the cast improvised an episode’s dialogue from basic scene outlines. This gave the first season of the show a similarly low-key, deadpan vibe to Dr. Katz—it didn’t hurt that that show’s star, Jonathan Katz, came along to play Melissa’s father, Erik—but beginning with season two, Small and company found their own voice, introducing a more rigorous sense of structure to the show, and ditching Squigglevision in favor of a more fluid (but no less idiosyncratic) Flash animation style.
Behind the camera, Brendon has a preternatural eye, but he lacks an intuitive grasp of the world around him. His naïveté is important to Home Movies, because it shields him from some harsh realities. It’s a deeply funny show, but one with a melancholy streak below its surface: There’s always a sense that the world as Brendon has seen it on screen has failed him, his peers, and the people who raise them. Brendon and Melissa both have absentee parents in their lives. The best the education system can give them are a drunkard like McGuirk and a milquetoast like Mr. Lynch (Ron Lynch). Brendon and his friends often play roles that should be filled by adults—in their movies, and in their everyday lives. Voicing this angst in wailing guitar solos is Small’s other Home Movies avatar, the marble-mouthed teen shredder Dwayne, the frontman of Scäb and a longhaired outlet for talents Small could more acutely tap in his follow-up series, Metalocalypse.
Home Movies’ depiction of childhood doesn’t give in to nostalgia. Brendon’s life is not made easier by the fact that he’s still in elementary school, nor is that elementary school any sort of respite from the chaos and uncertainty of his day-to-day life. The show’s humor is wrapped up in the kids being both innocent and wise beyond their years, but they can be cruel and petty beyond their years, too, be it the behind-the-scenes politicking that often plagues Brendon’s movies, or the knee-high tyranny that Fenton Mulley (Sam Seder, never better) brings to the scene. This is what a Peanuts TV special would sound like if the characters were played by adults who also get to articulate the melancholy of age-appropriate characters. No trombone “wah wah”s here.
It’s that emotional architecture that makes Brendon’s artistic expressions such a potent device. The series is explicit about why he makes movies and the specific events that led to him acquiring the camera—the title of the film from the first-season finale, Fat Her, says it all—but that still leaves plenty of rich material to mine with basement opuses like Louis, Louis; The Shrinking President-King; and Starboy & The Captain Of Outer Space. Sometimes they’re subtext, sometimes they’re evidence of things the characters would never see unless they were on screen, and sometimes they’re just spontaneous outbursts of scatting. They’re almost always bad, or at least somewhat misguided, because it would take all the fun out of the show if Brendon, Jason, and Melissa were child prodigies. It’s another part of life that Home Movies doesn’t sugarcoat: A PSA intended to prevent kids from putting marbles in their nostrils might have the opposite effect—especially if the thrash-metal jingle for that PSA has the potentially confounding refrain “Don’t put marbles in your nose / Put them in there / Do not put them in there.”
Putting the kids and adults on a level playing field opened up the path to Home Movies’ most satisfying character arc, inasmuch as such things exist on an Adult Swim show: the journey of soccer coach John McGuirk. An alcoholic lone wolf who struggles to moderate his feelings, McGuirk is not the most likely candidate for sympathetic treatment at the beginning of the series. But following the Adult Swim pickup, he was given a more prominent spot in the ensemble; his own storylines, independent of the action (or inaction) on the soccer field, followed. He hijacks poetry readings, goes way into debt thanks to some home-shopping swords, and doles out questionable life advice nonstop, but he also has a past as a Scottish Highland dancer, serves as a twisted sort of father figure to Brendon, and gets the kids out of more than one bind over the course of the series. From the components of the basic animated dirtbag, Home Movies built its best character into a recognizably flawed, soulful punching bag.
Some of the credit there goes to H. Jon Benjamin, a holdover from Dr. Katz, where he played the therapist’s layabout son. It’s remarkable how much personality Benjamin is able to get from the slightest modulations in his low grumble; McGuirk, Sterling Archer, and Bob Belcher all speak in the same voice, but certain characteristics distinguish them—McGuirk’s self-loathing, Archer’s confidence, Bob’s exhaustion. Of course, the way Home Movies was cast, Benjamin also played other characters with more varied voices, stuffing himself up as Jason or ping-ponging off Small to play the attached-at-the-hip Walter and Perry.
The recording sessions for Home Movies were conducted with the cast all in the same room (a tradition Bouchard has continued on Bob’s Burgers), providing a conversational tone that goes well with the show’s dry wit. In spite, and sometimes in service, of its animated format, Home Movies was one of the most natural shows on TV, one in which a discussion between a mother and a son really sounds like a mother and a son; one in which the many voices wrestling for control of a creative project truly are talking over one another. Brendon’s movies, Dwayne’s music, and McGuirk’s benders all provided regular flights of fancy, but they were part of a series that looked relatively grounded compared to the superhero attorneys, numbskull oceanauts, and sentient fast-food slackers that made up the rest of Adult Swim’s first lineup.
The first episode to debut on Adult Swim is also the first episode to get Home Movies right, a clash of artistic temperaments pitting Brendon’s concept for a film about two famed Frenchman who never met in real life—Louis Braille and Louis Pasteur in Louis, Louis—against Dwayne’s rock opera that tells the story of Franz Kafka. Jason and Melissa want to do the movie with the shredding and the metamorphosis; Brendon is incensed that his friends would want to follow anyone else’s creative vision, just as McGuirk is incensed about losing control of the soccer team to a younger, more charismatic assistant coach. It’s a great introduction to the main characters as individuals with their own feelings and priorities, with Benjamin going on a fantastic, mournful jag after Brendon leads Jason to believe that Dwayne has died. And the Queen harmonies, power-pop melodies, and semi-informational lyrics of the Kafka rock opera (“I’m a lonely German / A lonely German from Prague / I wonder what I’ll write about / I think I’ll write about bugs”) set a high bar for the music that follows. Plus, if you start here, Paula’s new voice is the only Paula voice you’ll ever know.
Brendon expands into message pictures after a traumatic visit to the emergency room with his little baby sister inspires him to make sure that no child ever sticks a marble up their nose again. Unfortunately, the rule-breaking puppet he creates for the project, Spiky McMarbles, makes the wrong impression on his audience, leading to an all-timer Home Movies punchline: “So tell me: At what point did you get the urge to stick marbles into your nose?” “When Spiky told me not to.” (Admittedly, the refrain to Dwayne’s theme song doesn’t help matters.) “Mortgages And Marbles” is also notable for a storyline in which McGuirk makes a rash decision and tests the patience of his fellow adults, crashing with Melissa and Erik after abruptly moving out of his apartment and taking Erik up on the offer to find a new place. Maybe Brendon would’ve had better luck with a PSA about lining up a new home before you leave your old one.
Given the way Home Movies was recorded, the show would never fully shed its digressive nature (nor would you want it to). Before the show moves into a more serialized arc involving Brendon reconnecting with his father and his father’s new fiancé, the kids take a break from filmmaking, after a playback session reveals that their latest crime drama has unraveled into Brendon and Jason’s characters inexplicably (and hilariously) opting to “fight with jazz.” While introducing another of the season’s major arcs—Brendon’s tongue-tied crush on Scäb’s new choreographer, Cynthia (Jen Kirkman)—“Hiatus” opens itself up to some minor characters who’d play an increased role as the show progressed: chipper playground dandies Walter and Perry and faculty pushover Mr. Lynch. Jason’s hiatus friendship with Walter and Perry is destined to be short-lived, but Lynch gives McGuirk a lasting foil—particularly valuable with Katz’s reduced presence in later seasons. Here, their Oscar-and-Felix routine takes them on a Mexican vacation, where Lynch is, disastrously, the only one who speaks the language.
Here’s one that really makes use of the Home Movies house style: an episode centered on a birthday party for Fenton Mulley, with plenty of big group scenes and spotlight moments for the supporting cast. The type of role that couldn’t have been easy on Sam Seder’s vocal cords (see also: Hugo, his wrathful Bob’s Burgers food inspector), Fenton is a huge brat with a doting mother, so naturally his birthday party is hell on earth. McGuirk calls it early on, after reading the rhyming couplets of the invitation—“This is awful,” paying no mind to the fact that it’s correspondence regarding an 8-year-old’s birthday—but even he shows up to the disastrous shindig, where Brendon struggles (and fails) to sugarcoat a documentary that paints the guest of honor in all the wrong lights. But even when the moviemaking is a secondary concern, Home Movies finds room for an homage. Jason promises Melissa he’ll go easy on the candy at the Mulleys’, but quickly backslides, locking the characters into an inspired, sweet-tooth riff on Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?. It’s just that kind of party.
Melissa didn’t always get Home Movies’ best material, but she’s at the center of the series’ most tightly scripted, most satisfying installment. Concerned that his daughter doesn’t have enough positive female role models in her life, Erik enrolls Melissa in the Fairy Princess Club, a sham Girl Scouts-type outfit that tasks its members with hawking a line of useless merchandise. While she’s spending the weekend among the Fairy Princesses, Brendon’s stuck at Fenton’s, a sleepover Paula booked without consulting him. “Shore Leave” is a jailbreak episode that’s absolutely crammed with jokes, from the “Who’s On First?” walkie-talkie conversation the kids have before being shipped off to serve their sentences to Seder making a meal out of Fenton’s weird insistence on calling Brendon’s movies “video films.” The ending gets more action-movie spectacle on screen than Brendon could ever hope to capture with one of his video films, and it adds plenty of evidence in the continued softening of John McGuirk—which can only come after he runs into Melissa and drunkenly refuses to buy any of her Fairy Princess wares.
Is a friendship as tight and codependent as Brendon and Jason’s a healthy thing? Sure, they inspire one another to ever greater heights of creativity, but they also manage to bring some pretty ugly behavior out of one another, which “Bad Influences” manifests in junk-food binges. In the interest of their well-being (and at the urging of Nurse Kirkman), the boys quit one another cold turkey, though “Bad Influences” contrasts their behavior against that of a truly toxic pairing, McGuirk and Lynch. The soccer coach and the teacher take Kirkman and a friend out on a double date, but their pissing match over whom the school nurse likes more means the guys are paying more attention to one another than they are to their dates. The fat-shaming hasn’t aged well with “Bad Influences,” but it’s worth recommending on the strengths of two memorable gags. One is a Home Movies standby that would be perfected in season three’s “Time To Pay The Price”: a rapid-fire montage through the various parodies, recreations, and genre exercises that make up Brendon’s filmography. The second is a McGuirk all-timer, a pressure cooker of insecurities that erupts all over the stage of the club where he has his double date. Never again will you be able to read the words “New York Times” without hearing H. Jon Benjamin’s voice.
Comedy is hard, dying is easy, bad improv is easier, and making bad improv funny is harder still. But the seasoned improvisers of the Home Movies cast are up to the task, in this episode where a troupe of college-age volunteers comes to the school to teach sensitivity through the art of make-’em-ups. But before that centerpiece sequence, the offense that robs everyone of a Saturday: Brendon finds that he can get laughs out of his classmates with an impression of sweet, incomprehensible Junior Adelberg, leading to hurt feelings and a pair of apologetic summits between the Smalls and the Adelbergs. (Both are series highlights, though the edge goes to the Brendon-Junior chat, in which Brendon Small skillfully pivots between the characters.) Despite his newfound skills as a comic mimic, Brendon freezes up when he hits the stage with the improvisers, leaving McGuirk, in his inimitable way, to bring the whole thing to a screeching halt.
The fourth season finds Brendon questioning his cinematic ambitions more frequently, though he’s still the only one at school with the experience to helm the student production of the bobby-socks-and-poodle-skirts throwback Bye Bye Greasy. Other episodes weave a big musical production into their narratives—like the fateful meeting between Robin Hood and King Arthur in season three’s “Renaissance”—but opening night of Bye Bye Greasy gets the most laughs, especially once McGuirk arrives for his showstopping number, which he only agrees to because he gets to drive his car onto the stage. The producers could sense that they were working on borrowed time, so the fourth season also features the welcome returns of some bygone secondary players; here, Emo Philips reprises his role as bully-with-a-heart-of-gold Shannon, who strong-arms his way into the title role of Bye Bye Greasy.
McGuirk never fully wrests a story away from the kids, but if there’s one episode where his subplot is the main attraction, it’s this one. Brendon’s disgust with his latest project, a rock ’n’ roll fairy tale called The Wizard’s Baker, ties in nicely with the general direction of season four, while further foreshadowing Small’s full-time shift into musical comedy with Metalocalypse. But coming to know and love John McGuirk after so much Home Movies, don’t you just want to watch him try to pawn off the swords he bought in a fit of pique? He’s the type of guy who would buy ancient weapons over the phone, but more to the point, he’s the type of guy who’d feel instant buyer’s remorse about the scenario. It might only be a B-story—one that later earned a Bob’s Burgers shout-out—but hey, John McGuirk’s whole life is a B-story.
Quite simply one of TV’s finest series finales, with a neat full-circle hook: When Brendon, Jason, and Melissa find their very first movie, they hold a focus group to determine what the ending should be, bringing a number of Home Movies’ most valuable players off the bench. Meanwhile, McGuirk tries his hand yet again at some handyman work for Paula—he attempts to remodel her kitchen, with predictably disastrous results, in “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”—when he attempts to build the Smalls’ new grill. The show’s central, surrogate family cemented in place, “Focus Grill” builds to a bittersweet moment of change for Brendon. McGuirk may have grown in increments throughout the course of the show, but when Brendon lets go in this last episode, it’s a signal from the show to the viewers that it’s okay to let Home Movies go, too.