Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Home Movies"

Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant).

From December 2008: I’m not sure how I managed to end up so late to the party on Home Movies. Fast-paced, funny, and inventive, this cartoon comedy was the follow-up project for many of the talents involved in the great Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist; producer/director/co-creator Loren Bouchard was heavily involved in Katz, as was executive producer Tom Snyder (no, not that Tom Snyder), and most of the voice talents of that show pop up over the course of the show’s four season run (many of them more than once).

I was a Dr. Katz fanatic—though apparently not enough of a fanatic to know that there was this whole other series that most of the parties involved had moved on to. At any rate, in reviewing the new Home Movies: 10th Anniversary Set, I consumed the series’ entire 52-episode output in two days, which allowed the unique opportunity to watch an entertaining show search for—and ultimately find—its own unique, distinctive voice.

Home Movies concerns Brendon (voiced by co-creator/writer Brendon Small), a bright eight-year old obsessed by cinema. His regular after-school activity is shooting goofy homemade movies with his video camera, assisted by his school chums Melissa (Melissa Gasky) and Jason (H. Jon Benjamin). School soccer coach Jon McGurk (also voiced by Benjamin) provides wildly inappropriate adult guidance, while Brendon’s single mom Paula (first voiced by Paula Poundstone, then Janine Ditullio) provides support and occasional (distracted) discipline. The resulting brew is a mixture of sly movie in-jokes and parodies, childhood angst, and dysfunctional family values.

Like Katz, the humor of Home Movies is based less on traditional “joke writing” than on characterization; there is very little in the way of set-up/punch-line and more of an emphasis on timing, pauses, situation, and reaction. As a result, the series’ sense of humor is often bone-dry, which can be off-putting to fans of more mainstream comedy.

My favorite of the show’s four seasons is Season One, though I’ll admit that this is probably due to that season being the closest, stylistically, to Katz. The first season utilizes that show’s signature “Squiggle-vision” animation, in addition to the “retro-scripting” writing process, in which actors improvise their dialogue from a rough outline, with the show coming together afterwards thanks to extensive audio editing.

The result is smart, loose, and funny. The movies-within-the-show are consistently clever, perfectly capturing the handheld charm of amateur videos. The characters take some time to establish, although Coach McGurk is uproarious from the show’s very first scene; this is a truly terrific character, and Benjamin’s bizarre quirks and unparalleled skill at spouting a non-sequitur serve the role well (and, most impressively, he manages to use those same skills in an entirely different—and appropriate—fashion in his portrayal of young Jason).

The show premiered on the struggling net-let UPN, which unceremoniously yanked the show after five episodes due to low ratings (even for them). Luckily, the show was quickly picked up by Cartoon Network, which used it as an anchor program for their new [adult swim] line-up. It some ways, the turnaround was probably for the best—it’s not surprising that a show whose sixth episode centers around a rock opera based on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” might not connect with a mass audience. Poundstone left the show during the transition, and while her distinctive humor was missed, Ditullio quickly made the character her own.

There are plenty of great episodes in the first season, but my favorites are “Yoko,” in which Brendon’s potential girlfriend Lonny (voiced by Katz regular Laura Silverman) threatens to break up the group; “Method of Acting,” in which Brendon takes acting lessons at a community theatre; “School Nurse,” which gives us a taste of McGurk’s dating style; and “Mortgages and Marbles,” which features several welcome duet scenes between Benjamin and his Dr. Katz co-star Jonathan Katz (their two-scenes were that show’s highlight, and Home Movies wisely puts the pair together at least once a season, with delightful results).

The show goes through some growing pains at the top of Season Two. For a variety of reasons (critic and fan feedback, the crew’s desire to establish their own post-Katz identity), the second season dispenses with the two elements most identified with Dr. Katz: the “Squiggle-vision” animation and the “retro-scripting” writing process. The first isn’t a particularly big deal; some folks actively disliked the look of the squiggly animation (I never minded it, but also didn’t miss it when it disappeared), and the Flash animation that replaces it is crisp and aesthetically pleasing. It does, however, make the show look a little more like any other animated show, a problem that is augmented by the more conventional scripting. The bonus materials insist that improvisation was still encouraged, but the writing feels tighter and more restrictive (at least at the beginning of the season), and as a result, the show loses some of its shambling, low-key charm. Early season two episodes feel more written and less captured, more the product of clever writers than inventive actors. The desire to separate the show from its predecessor is certainly understandable, though I’m not sure if it’s better to be the one show like Dr. Katz or one of the many shows that’s like every other show.

On the plus side, stellar comedic talent continues to flock to the series; Andy Kindler makes a welcome semi-regular addition to the cast, as does Louis C.K. (one of the finest stand-ups working), who brings some charm to the role of Brendon’s absentee dad. The show starts to find its new footing five episodes in with “The Party” episode, which nicely inter-cuts the three kids’ adventures at the birthday party of epically spoiled brat Fenton (nicely overplayed by Sam Seder). “Class Trip” is another highlight, cleverly juggling the trio’s attempt to shoot a movie during a field trip to a hotel with a subplot that finds Coach McGurk working as a barista. “History” features one of the show’s best movies (with the kids playing Washington, Picasso, and Annie Oakley as evil geniuses bent on world domination), and the season comes to memorably cheerful conclusion with “The Wedding.”

Season Three stars very strong with the “Shore Leave” episode, in which the story elements split the kids up before crashing them back together with rapid intercutting and intersecting plotlines that would have done Seinfeld proud. “Four’s Company” again puts Katz and Benjamin together, with predictably uproarious results, while the “Renaissance” episode manages to send up Ren-Fair nerds and sci-fi geeks without going into the trite or familiar (thanks, at least partially, to a spot-on guest turn by the always-funny Patton Oswalt). And “Time To Pay The Price” is one of the finest episodes of the entire series, packing in a trove of the trio’s productions, all of which share a strange recurring theme.

On the downside, this season finds more and more screen time turned over to Walter and Perry, a pair of obnoxious kids in a bizarre, homoerotic relationship. The duo have their fans, but I’m not among them; they’re more irritating than funny, more odd and off-balance than genuinely amusing. Also, Paula’s character shifts somewhat in this season and the final one into a more vocal critic of her son’s work; I, for one, found her unwavering support in the earlier episodes to be both funnier and more endearing.

Those complaints aside, the third season is a strong one; the show feels looser and more freewheeling, and the season finale (the Halloween episode “Coffins and Cradles”) finds big laughs (and the slightest bit of warmth) for just about everyone.

Just about everyone involved knew that Season Four would be the show’s last (many thought it wouldn’t make it past season three, and that season’s finale was conceived as a possible series send-off), and you can feel the crew taking the show in some different directions over the course of these 13 episodes; there’s a sense of trying to get everything in before they run out of opportunities, so we have the kids going to camp, Brandon directing the school play, the trio adopting a puppy, and so on. As a result of these storylines, which often bend the film-centric storylines of earlier years, the fourth season is perhaps the richest. It also feels like more improvisation has crept in (not as much as season one perhaps, the most we’ve seen since then), with the show finally achieving, on a regular basis, the proper mix of scripted cleverness and off-the-page interaction.

Coach McGurk provides consistent comedy gold throughout the fourth season. He goes to traffic school, blows out his pecks, dabbles in religion, and goes temporarily blind after laser surgery (“I smell burning eye. Is that a problem?”), and yet his stories never play like the kind of forced wackiness they could turn into—Benjamin never stoops to playing him for sympathy, but you just can’t help but feel for the big idiot.

Memorable episodes here include “Curses” (another show heavy on Katz-Benjamin collaboration), “Psycho-Delicate” (with a guest spot by another Katz semi-regular, Todd Barry), “Those Bitches Tried To Cheat Me” (which gives teacher Mr. Lynch some of his best moments of the series), and an extended riff on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, “Definite Possible Murder.” The show’s final episode, “Focus Grill,” is especially strong, drawing the series to a fine full circle, both structurally and thematically. It’s an affectionate send-off, bittersweet and kind of wonderful and therefore perfectly in tone with this charming little show.

Home Movies isn’t perfect, but that’s part of its charm; while it struggles to find and refine its own comic voice, it is always likable and utterly charming. The 10th Anniversary Set offers the opportunity to watch that evolution and enjoy the hard work of a very talented group of people. Those who purchased the individual seasons will find little in the way of added value here, but those (like me) who missed the boat should jump on this set and latch on to this smart, droll, witty program.

"Home Movies: 10th Anniversary Set" is available on DVD; the entire series is now streaming on Netflix.

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