Though it centers on prepubescent filmmakers, I’m not so sure the wonderful Home Movies was created by actual film buffs. In contrast with a pop-culture-saturated show like The Critic, this one doesn’t parody specific movies, but rather shows us clips of movies made by children—non-referential bits that marry elaborate concepts and slapdash production. Like Bill Watterson’s comic strip hero Calvin, the kids of Home Movies harbor precocious fantasies in the sort of half-cocked style of an actual eight-year-old.
Also like Calvin, they don’t age. But during the fourth and final season, now on DVD, you can sense that Brendon (voiced by creator Brendon Small), Melissa (Melissa Bardin Galsky), and Jason (H. Jon Benjamin) are shifting their interests. The season is book-ended by episodes hinting that the kids aren’t exactly born filmmakers: in “Camp,” the trio attends a performing arts summer camp, expecting to be treated as prodigies, but their work is immediately disparaged by the film counselor. “Focus Grill,” the final episode, paints an even bleaker picture, as the kids watch their very first (and still unfinished) movie and question their moviemaking aptitude.
As the series moves away from filmmaking, other arts start to emerge. Brendon flirts with film reviewing in “Everyone’s Entitled to My Opinion” and theater in “Bye Bye Greasy,” but this DVD set is music-centric. Indeed, one of the bonus features is an audio CD featuring songs from the show’s entire run. As this 52-track CD shows, music was always featured prominently in the Home Movies universe, in particular as embodied by Dwayne (Small), a longhaired guitarist with rock-opera ambitions that rival Brendon’s cinematic plans. But music becomes especially prominent in this fourth season.
“Camp” features guest voice work by John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, playing teenage camp counselors (the episode’s centerpiece song, “Taste the Fame,” appears on TMBG’s 2005 CD Venue Songs); “Bye Bye Greasy” immediately follows, centering around a school musical that goofs on Grease and Bye Bye Birdie. Similarly, “Temporary Blindness” includes scenes that ape the Who’s rock operas, showing more affection towards their musical sources than anyone on the show typically shows film.
This newfound investment in music carries over as well to the DVD set’s many commentary tracks. For “Camp,” Small, usually so deadpan, sounds dead serious when trying to recall the chord progressions for “Taste the Fame.” “Camp” also has a commentary track from members of the alt-rock band Modest Mouse (though at least one has never seen the show before). The track is agreeable but hazy, with lengthy pauses, but the band does seem engaged by the show’s music: “This is one of the only cartoons where singing doesn’t bother me,” says a band member (I think it was frontman Issac Brock, but they don’t identify themselves). He adds, “If [the show’s music] was put out as a legitimate band, it would go over pretty well.” Even the guy who hasn’t seen the show says of the episode featuring Dwayne with the animated They Might Be Giants, “That looks like a guy from Weezer, a guy from the Ramones, and…” before maybe-Brock identifies the characters for him. In a spotty track, music is the one element that draws the Modest Mouse boys into real discussion.
The Shins also contribute a commentary, on “Temporary Blindness,” pointing out the Who allusions and—a bit more lucid than their Modest Mouse peers—making references of their own to The Simpsons and Freaks & Geeks. But this commentary, too, doesn’t provide much insight, apart from showing that the easygoing deadpan interplay between the guys from the Shins isn’t far removed from that between Small and his collaborator, Loren Bouchard. In a bit of restlessness that would make Small proud, the two guys from the Shins actually start fooling around with musical instruments during their commentary, though they stop short of improvising the kind of three-minute rock operas that, by the end of the series, had become an odd but prominent part of the show.
Knowing that Small continues to dabble in music, it’s easy to read this season, and the bittersweet (and hilarious) “Focus Grill” in particular, as his transition away from childhood things. Like Calvin & Hobbes, Home Movies is brilliant at evoking the world of children from a distinctly adult perspective (dry, smart, neurotic)—without turning the children into miniature adults. Like actual kids playing with Legos, the creative ambition of Brendon, Jason, and Melissa show is touching (moreso than their talent); it will probably aid them in the future, when their abilities catch up with them. We can only imagine that they went on to form a high school band.