(Tomorrow is the 20th Anniversary of the premiere of Mission Hill. Guest author Amy Bilancini wrote about it- Ed.)
I didn’t watch the first run of Mission Hill on The WB but instead discovered it like most people my age when it started airing in syndication on [adult swim] in the summer of 2002. 2002 was, for my money, the heyday of [adult swim], and while this article is about Mission Hill specifically I think it bears mentioning the context in which I experienced it for the first time. I was entering my senior year of high school, and spending Sunday nights staying up until 1am watching cartoons was required for Monday mornings. I’d circle up with my little nerd crew – soon to become my D&D squad – and we’d rehash the plots of what we had finished watching a mere 6 hours earlier. By Wednesday mornings in our pre-first period extended AP Chem labs we were demanding to be given the Destructo Beam and asking if the blob heard the pods say its mother was very fat. No I was not very popular, why do you ask?
But the show that really stuck with me, the one that I still connect with, was Mission Hill. Set in the fictional neighborhood of Mission Hill (an amalgamation of a number of cool enclaves around the country but you better believe I assumed it was the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston until I got regular access to the internet and learned otherwise), the show primarily follows the lives of Andy and Kevin French, two brothers forced to live together after their parents move out to Wyoming to conquer the direct mail marketing… er, market. Andy is a 20-something aspiring cartoonist which means he has a wage slave job that he despises at a waterbed store. Kevin is an overachieving high schooler who got a t-shirt made with his SAT scores and has an annoying habit of “bling-blong”-ing whenever he needs to focus. Andy and Kevin live with Posey (A FEMALE ROOMMATE? – Kevin), Andy’s best friend from home Jim, and Stogie, an alcoholic dog with a penchant for eating anything in his line of sight.
As with most cartoons, the hijinks the characters get into aren’t really grounded in reality – Andy was on a lost season of The Real World, Kevin is gifted a brand new Ferraro by Andy’s tax evading boss – but what really draws you in are the characters themselves and the world they inhabit. I was 100% “a Kevin” in high school, overachieving and kinda smug about it. Most people I know had an Andy phase in their mid-20s – working a job that paid the bills so they could chase a creative goal to varying degrees of success. Everyone has a flighty, hippie Posey in their lives and there’s always a Jim, your inexplicably successful friend who you’d hate if he wasn’t just so damn nice, lurking around.
The supporting cast is dynamic and wildly diverse, but I want to focus on two in particular – Wally & Gus. In an era where gay panic jokes were everywhere and queer characters were played for laughs, Mission Hill stood out for its portrayal of its gay couple. According to this interview with Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, Wally and Gus’s first on-screen appearance, where they are furiously making out in an elevator, was “network television’s first gay male kiss” (The Will & Grace episode that featured Will and Jack smooching aired a full five months later).
They were neither punchlines or token characters. I rewatched the entire series in preparation for this article and I cannot cite one instance where their sexuality or relationship was demeaned or debased for the sake of a laugh line. Yes, there is that moment in the pilot where Kevin keeps calling Gus a “homo” in a way he believes to be complementary but (1) Kevin is very clearly in the wrong (and a drunk-for-the-first-time-17-year-old but that isn’t really an excuse) and (2) Gus explicitly says this is hurtful, Kevin stops and never behaves that way toward Gus or Wally again. Is the representation perfect? No. But it deserves credit for not taking the easy road so many of its peers of the era did.
I’m not really sure what the point I’m trying to make is here but I’ll try and wrap this up. Mission Hill has been a through-line for most of the last 20 (oh dear god) years of my life and continues to resonate in a way I couldn’t even fathom when I was 17 years old.
It’s absurd and nonsensical and emotional and warm and manages to weave a rich tapestry even though it’s just a 13-episode cartoon that almost no one watched, but those of us that did love and treasure it. At its heart, Mission Hill is a show about being young and out in the world for the first time. It’s about navigating adult relationships and accepting responsibilities you really don’t want but will handle with aplomb because it’s what has to be done. It is unapologetically diverse without feeling pandering. As Mrs. French says, “It takes all kinds of fruits, to make fruit cup” and Mission Hill embodies that aphorism every moment it’s on your screen.
Were you a Mission Hill fan? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.
Interested in owning Mission Hill? You can pick it up via the link below, and 80s Baby gets a small percentage.