Journal to the Center of McGuirk: Filmmaking and the Found Family of Home Movies, Part Two
Second years are a daunting proposition, far more intimidating than new beginnings. You’ve settled in to a new situation and no longer have freshman status to excuse your fumblings. It’s time to move forward, but when you've only made one step, you only have one foot in place. If the next doesn’t go far enough, you’ll get nowhere. If it strays too far, you’ll land on your face. It’s true of life, it’s true of school, and it’s true of television.
From the first scene of the second season of Home Movies, it is immediately clear that this is a different show than it was before. The most obvious change is that the jagged twitches of Squigglevision have given way to the clean lines and flat colors of Flash animation. But in contrast to the streamlined visuals, the show signals that it is about to get far more thematically complex. The season premiere, “Politics”, finds Brendon running for student body president. His win is tainted by accusations that eccentric bully Shannon (voiced by comedian Emo Philips) rigged the election in exchange for a role in the Small administration. Comedy ensues as the non-confrontational Brendon must clear his name without upsetting an unpredictable hooligan. It’s an intricate story that not only kicks off a denser second act of the show, but remains relevant social satire over a decade later.
Politics proved to be an important theme in my own second year of high school, as the 2004 presidential election loomed on the horizon. These were still the early days of the campaign trail, but I was keenly attentive, as this would be the first election for which I was really politically aware (I remember wanting Gore to win in 2000, but I was still more interested in Pokémon than presidents). Our rural North Dakota town ran stereotypically red, but my family was staunchly Democrat, and my friends and I were mostly artist types figuring out what it meant to lean left. Being too young to vote anyway, it felt like a complex and significant battle I could only observe.
The tight circle I’d found freshman year began to show the occasional crack inevitable among hormone-addled teens. We’d sometimes snap at each other, bear petty grudges, fall in and out of crushes on each other and each other’s crushes. I was seeing this reflected in each episode of Home Movies, sometimes with parallels so close they wouldn’t become clear without a few years' distance. A particularly ambitious class video project was put in jeopardy because one of us couldn’t stand being around the others that week, just as Brendon, Jason, and Melissa take a break from each other in “Hiatus”. I started to take an interest in dating, but would consistently blow what meager chances I had by trying too hard, much like Brendon in “Impressions”. My involvement in clubs and activities forced me to learn how to be nice to jerks, as the kids must be to the transcendently obnoxious Fenton (voiced by Sam Seder) in “The Party”. For a show about eight-year-olds who talked like thirty-year-olds, its resemblance to my sixteenth year was spooky.
The show delays the payoff to season one's cliffhanger, waiting several episodes to introduce Louis C.K. as Brendon’s father, Andrew. To the audience, it’s clear that Andrew has no clue how to be a dad and very little interest in figuring out how, though he’s nice enough and loves Brendon. It’s a nuanced achievement of both the writing and performance that Andrew doesn’t come off as a bad or frighteningly neglectful person; he’s just someone going through the motions of his own responsibilities. Upon getting reacquainted with his father, Brendon is, on the surface, indifferent to the man, referring to him as “what’s his name” in conversation with his mother, who is quietly shown drinking more often as she struggles throughout the season to find a job after getting laid off in a quietly tragic background arc.
Coach McGuirk's reaction to Andrew's presence is a turning point for the show, as he realizes, without admitting it, how jealous he is of Brendon having a father figure other than him. And as Brendon grows frustrated and confused by his father’s relationship with his high-strung fiancé Linda (voiced by Laura Silverman), he goes with increasing frequency to the coach for advice and counsel. Without either character acknowledging it, the antagonistic relationship that had been the focus of the pilot eases into one of companionship and concern.
For the first time, the kids' movies become a sinister presence, as a family therapist points out that Brendon’s passive-aggressive feelings about his father are showing in his work. The episode “History” stretches the show’s format, spending more time in-movie than in the “real world”, where Brendon is forced to admit that his projects and his short attention span are affecting his grades. The many subtle stresses of the season come to a head in the finale, when Brendon’s disaffected exterior cracks and he breaks out in horrific hives on the day of his father’s wedding.
My sophomore year of high school ended in a similarly tumultuous fashion. Finals were a struggle, compounded by my realization that I was falling behind for the first time. I had always prided myself on being a smart kid, always straight As through junior high. But at the end of that year, I found myself no longer top of my class, slipping down towards average in maths and sciences. One day, I had a breakdown in the back of the biology lab, trying and failing not to cry as everything I knew about myself crumbled under the weight of a B minus. I don’t remember now what in particular had set me off that day, but I’ll never forget my teacher quietly and sweetly reassuring me that she knew I was smart.
I was coming to terms with the fact that I was not a numbers kid. Classes slipped from my grasp, but I told myself I wasn’t getting dumber, I was simply narrowing my focus. English, Creative Writing, History of the Novel—these were stimulatingly challenging yet thrillingly effortless. I was realizing that I was a writer. Numbers and hormones and the world at large might betray me, but I had books, words, stories, films, and my silly little cartoon show. I would need them all. Junior year was coming.