I can't say exactly where "Home Movies" fit into UPN's plan. It was never going to be a tentpole show. It might have been a scrappy cult classic punching above its weight, a la "South Park." Certainly by this time in history everyone had figured out that a clever animated show smart enough for adults but inoffensive enough for kids to watch could become a success. "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill," and "Futurama" were already hits, and "South Park" was something kids weren't supposed to watch but did anyway.
"Home Movies" was an obvious attempt by UPN to tap into that market. UPN brought Loren Bouchard, the executive producer of "Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist" which had run on Comedy Central, as well as H. Jon Benjamin, one of the stars of "Dr. Katz" in to make "Home Movies." Presumably the main appeal of this creative team was that their shit was cheap, but amusing.
"Dr. Katz," which, the more I think about it, probably deserves its own entry in the Re-Animated series, but I'll have to get to that, utilized a rather unique premise for an animated show: it was improvised. Essentially what it had consisted of was comedians coming in to sit on Dr. Katz's couch and give their standup routines. A mild plot about Dr. Katz's family, including his son Ben (played by H. Jon Benjamin) served as essentially interstitials. The whole script was basically improvised, then animated with the off-putting but extremely cheap "Squigglevision."
Squigglevision consisted of static images which appeared to suffer from palsy, giving the illusion of animation. No one ever really moved, which was fine for a show about a therapist who sees comedians.
"Home Movies" used the same retroscripting process and the same Squigglevision (I hesitate to use the term) "technology. In addition to H. Jon Benjamin, it brought in relative newcomer Brendon Small as a precocious eight-year-old filmmaker. In the early episodes, the children made movies which were bookended by the family struggles of Brendon, Jason (Benjamin's essentially orphaned and maladjusted child character), and their friend Melissa, an overachiever with bad self esteem.
Unfortunately, movies are pretty much by definition an active art form, and while Squigglevision worked on "Dr. Katz" it seemed to be a detriment to "Home Movies." The show was clever, but it was just damn ugly, and it never quite found an audience. UPN cancelled it after airing five episodes.
Remember last week's entry on "Futurama?" Or two weeks ago's "Family Guy?" Well, then, get ready to...not be surprised at all. adult swim swooped in to save the day. Really, "Home Movies" was the first show adult swim saved from the network ash heap, which is one of the reasons why writing this blog series is so difficult. Where do you jump in? When a show is at its prime or when it begins? How much history do you need to dive into a show on its own merits? Just writing this post I'm already sort of regretting not giving "Dr. Katz" its own entry, and writing "King of the Hill" made me feel like I should have done "Beavis and Butt-Head" first.
But such is the burden of all important historians talking about cartoons such as myself. So, we shall proceed.
"Home Movies" was the first non-original show to air on adult swim. In a way, its utter cheapness was its saving grace. UPN didn't much give a shit about a show it had aired for less than two months in 1999 and had cost peanuts to make. But adult swim was very much interested in a show that, if you could see past the ugliness of its design, was very clever and had a shitload of potential.
Fortunately, between the era of "Dr. Katz" and "Home Movies" moving to adult swim, animation technology had moved by leaps and bounds. Squigglevision had been a cheap method for making a show seem animated. But by 2002, Flash animation was just as cheap as Squigglevision had been and you could have a product that was genuinely animated.
adult swim aired the eight UPN episodes of "Home Movies" and I suspect if that had been all they had it never would have caught on. But after that, it began airing original, Flash-animated episodes. No longer headache-inducingly painful to watch, the scrappy little gem that was "Home Movies" finally had a chance to shine.
H. Jon Benjamin - who we'll learn much, much more about in coming installments - is something of an improvisational and voice acting genius. Originally "Home Movies" was supposed to focus on the kids and their attempts to build a surrogate family out of their various broken homes. In the very first episode of the series, Benjamin voiced a character who I have always believed was meant to be a one-off, or at a minimum a background character, the churlish alcoholic soccer coach John McGuirk. McGuirk briefly dated Brendon's mother and caused much chaos in Brendon's life.
Luckily, the show's creators realized what they had in McGuirk: a character even more juvenile than the eight-year-olds who meant well but could never quite get his shit together enough to be a good father figure for Brendon. Instead, McGuirk stood out as a ridiculously bad male influence in Brendon's life: an indebted, misanthropic ex-con with a terrible job, a wreck of a life, and no prospects. But, damn it, McGuirk was there! He was always there for Brendon and the kids, and in a perverse way that made him one of the most loveable characters in television history. The Platonic ideal of a deadbeat, and yet, he was always present in his surrogate son's life, McGuirk stood in stark contrast to Brendon's actual father, a lawyer with money, a good job, all the requisite life skills to be a decent parent, and yet he was a more-or-less complete absentee from his son's life.
Andrew Small (played by a pre-gigantic blowup Louis C.K.) wasn't a terrible father, at least when he was around. He and his son bonded over some pretty generic commonalities, like a shared love of pizza and hatred of golf. But mostly it was blood that kept them tentatively in one another's lives, for a time at least, and by the end of the series, even if it's never explicitly stated, Brendon learns that family is what you make of it. He stops pining for the father who, even when well-intentioned, just kind of isn't very good at parenting, and starts accepting the terrible, terrible paternal influence who is always, always there for him.
At its heart, "Home Movies" is all about family. It's about broken children trying to come together as siblings. It's about broken adults trying to figure out how to raise those kids. And everyone, as my wife always enjoyed pointing out, was terribly miserable. Their lives, making movies, playing soccer, and everything else, was just about distracting themselves from how miserable they all were. The show had a raw, exposed heart and absolutely dripped with pathos. And yet...it was never on the nose with what it was doing. It never battered you over the head with its themes. If anything, the themes of family were so subtle that it's only in writing about it now, in the wake of four seasons of damn hilarious television, that I can really analyze what the "Home Movies" people were doing. You laughed out loud at the show because of the hilarious improve. But you loved every single one of those damn, miserable people trying to scrabble to make it in this world. It just was never that far off from how you feel about you own life.