In Home Movies—an animated sitcom about a precocious 8-year-old filmmaker (Brendon Small), his single mother, and his dysfunctional surrogate family—parents are often missing or ill-equipped to handle adult responsibilities, authority figures are bumbling, drunk, and inept, and childhood constitutes a never-ending string of traumas and humiliation. Like many creative children, the sweetly neurotic Small copes with the powerlessness he feels in real life by escaping into an overactive fantasy world. With a tiny repertory company that doubles as his two best friends, Small makes home movies that play like a deadpan parody of clumsy amateur filmmaking, providing many of the show's biggest laughs.
Quirky and surprisingly subtle, Home Movies occupies an emotional world that many of its viewers will view as disturbingly close to their own. This helps offset the technical crudeness of the show, which was animated via the migraine-inducing process of "Squiggle Vision," wherein characters, often without noses, wriggle around like Jell-O over crudely minimalist backgrounds. If that weren't off-putting enough, the first half of the series' pilot features largely static characters uttering improvised dialogue.
It's little wonder that UPN cancelled Home Movies after airing only a handful of episodes, but the show found a patient and nurturing home as part of the hugely successful "Adult Swim" lineup on Cartoon Network, which has a history of salvaging worthy misfits, castoffs, and rejects from other networks. Of course, compared to some of Adult Swim's more Dadaist fare, Home Movies seems positively conventional. Cartoon Network appears to be run exclusively by cultists, which made it a perfect home for a show that devotes entire episodes to its pint-sized protagonist's pursuit of a fisheye lens, or his desire to make a movie about a historic but fanciful meeting between Louis Pasteur and Louis Braille.
In its first season, Home Movies was all rough edges: The animation was crude, the character design ungainly, and the dialogue wildly improvised. As the show progressed, it got smoother, slicker, punchier, and more scripted, but it held onto its minimalist charm. It prides itself on keeping mistakes, like when characters sometimes talk over one another or start to laugh at each other's lines. Given its roots in improvisation, it's not surprising that Home Movies is driven by character and performance rather than gags, and it gains a cumulative force as it goes along: The more audiences get to know the characters and their rhythms, the funnier and more endearing they become. Home Movies is helped by a great voice cast whose chemistry fuels the show—regulars include Melissa Bardin Galsky and Dr. Katz's Jon Benjamin, while Jonathan Katz, Mitch Hedberg, and Emo Philips provide stellar guest turns. Home Movies could easily have been snuffed out in its infancy, but by allowing it to mature into a minor cult sensation, the Cartoon Network resurrected another victim of the "Too Good For TV" curse.