The Kid Stays in the Pictures
Kids are more creative than adults. Sure, many “masterpieces” were painted by grown-ups, but did Picasso ever make super-hero costumes out of garbage bags? Only children can construct epics out of whatever’s at hand. Most shows on TV miss this entirely. In sitcoms, the kids are wisecrack machines, delivering putdowns that would get a real-life kid slapped; in dramas, they are cutesy or angst-filled, usually wallpaper for adults’ story arcs. No program even comes close to capturing the ridiculous fervor that a child can put into play, into running around with other kids and making stuff up, just to entertain one another.
No program, that is, except for Home Movies. First airing in 1999, briefly on UPN, the show follows the creative endeavors of Brendon Small (voiced by Brendon Small), an eight-year-old would-be Scorcese who mounts a series of films with the aid of his friends, a video camera, and whatever and whoever happen to be in his vicinity. It is one of few laugh-out-loud funny shows on TV these days, as well as one of the most touching.
The animation initially resembled the “squiggle-vision” of Dr. Katz—in part because creator Small and producer Loren Bouchard are veterans of that show. After being picked up by Cartoon Network in 2001, Home Movies retained a casual style that made it feel as if the whole thing was being ad-libbed, but the animation, and the universe it depicted, grew more complicated. While the early episodes featured Brendon’s repertory cast—Jason (Jon Benjamin), a portly boy with a perpetually runny nose and a touch of film snobbery, and Melissa (Melissa Bardin Galsky), who mediates between Jason and Brendon’s competing cinematic theories—now the show focuses more broadly, on his movies, his struggles at school, his mother’s ongoing search for a new job, and his estranged father, who popped back into Brendon’s life during the second season.
Brendon’s pastiches—and in some case, blatant rip-offs—of famous movies and genres are hilarious, for both their amateurishness and their subtle send-ups of the originals. Brendon and his fellow actors deliver their lines in the stilted manner o children imitating adults, repeating things they don’t fully understand and badly imitating foreign speech (in “Time to Pay the Price,” while filming a Mad Max-type project, the trio butchers Australian accents, finding five or six different ways to pronounce “gasoline”). At times, their costumes seem a bit too sophisticated, but the sets are gloriously cheesy—cardboard police cars, stuffed animals standing in as members of a jury, Brendon’s baby sister’s crib used as a jail, and so on.
Like most young creators, Brendon believes his work is brilliant, even though, at this stage of his career, he is closer to Ed Wood than Truffaut. But filmmaking is more than just an escape for him—it’s how he deals with his world. When assigned to write a report for class, he produces a movie on the dangers of sticking things up your nose. When he hits a moving car on his bike, a judge asks him to give the driver a formal apology; instead, he makes a music video for his rock song, “Don’t Kill Children, Don’t Run Them Over.”
Brendon is familiar, that kid so insanely dedicated to something that it’s all he does or talks about. His dilemmas—trying to talk to a girl he likes, dealing with his father’s terrible fiancée, learning that his mom doesn’t have the money to pay for all his video supplies—are not simple, but they’re presented with intelligence rather than sappy Wonder Years-style nostalgia.
The show does not just concentrate on Brendon’s problems. When not filming, he hangs out with his soccer instructor, Coach McGuirk (also voiced by Benjamin), a burly, obnoxious man who seems ill-suited to deal with children, and whose voice veers in bipolar fashion from deadpan to hysterical screaming, usually directed at his young charges. “Why am I coaching soccer?! Why don’t I just coach public speaking?!” he bellows. “Because that’s all you kids do: public speak!” His frequent advice to Brendon rarely makes sense. “Women are an interesting bunch,” he offers. “They’re like grapes… That’s all I’ve got, really. You see, I said ‘bunch,’ so I thought of grapes. If I had said, ‘Women are an interesting group’... well, I would’ve thought of grapes as well.”
Home Movies is delightfully spare about the details of McGuirk’s life, like The Simpsons before it ran out of ideas and started doing shows on the Comic Book Guy. McGuirk has alluded to jail time, repossession of his property, and strange food-related tattoos on his body (“That laughing cow from the cheese, cuz I really liked that cheese”). As far as we know, Brendon is the only friend he has, which says as much as you need to know about how funny and sad he is at the same time.
The series has a small following, probably too small to qualify as a cult. “I think the show has the kind of exposure that I think it should have,” Brendon Small said in an interview with Morphizm.com last March. “Like someone has to tell you about it, which I think is kind of fun.” It’s the kind of show that will never explode; maybe it’ll make a Hot List or two, garner a few positive reviews like this one, and comfortably avoid detection by the pop culture radar.
It sticks out like a sore thumb amid Adult Swim’s more overtly “adult” fare like Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Sealab 2021. Though the show probably goes over most kids’ heads, I almost wish that it would air after school. The budding Brendon Smalls out there could do with a representative on the small screen, to let them know they’re not the only ones churning out magnificent opuses in their parents’ basements.