The only way to sort of enjoy Family Tree is with modest expectations; and indeed, this is the most modest of series, as Christopher Guest cuts his molars on TV with a program that rarely tries to be more than fairly amusing, mildly ambitious, a kind of bemused apprentice work in a new medium.
By Gerald Peary
Those anticipating that Christopher Guest—the director of such droll, superlative film comedies as Waiting For Guffman, A Mighty Wind, and Best of Show—would crash land in television with a slam-bang, instantly classic series will be acutely disappointed by Family Tree, an eight-part show directed and co-written by Guest that premiered last week on HBO. The only way to sort of enjoy it is with modest expectations; and indeed, this is the most modest of series, as Guest cuts his molars on TV with a program that rarely tries to be more than fairly amusing, mildly ambitious, a kind of bemused apprentice work in a new medium.
The first four episodes, available from HBO to the press, are all British-set and feel like a BBC series a bit too twee and local (and uneventful) to be imported to the USA. It stars the congenial Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig’s nice-guy boyfriend in Bridesmaids, as Tom Chadwick, who, dumped by his girlfriend and made redundant at work, gets caught up tracing his family tree. That means locating lost relatives who are, he says, “spawned from the Chadwick family oak.” Well, that’s it for a plot: Tom tracing down his peculiar family. What are the stakes of this search? Through the four shows I watched, there really are none. No, this isn’t Oedipus killing his dad, marrying his mum.
Besides those missing kin, Tom has several he’s connected with daily who are Family Tree regulars. There’s his sis, Bea, a maladjusted lass who stumbles through life clutching a foulmouthed hand puppet. She’s portrayed by Nina Conti, a real-life ventriloquist, and, so far in the series, the interplay between Bea and Monk (a puppet monkey), just hasn’t jelled. The humor is crass and clumsy. There’s also Tom’s father, Keith Chadwick, the only British role occupied by a leading member of Christopher Guest’s acting ensemble: Michael McKean. McKean, always good, coasts as Keith, a happy-go-lucky armchair potato who goes wild with laughter savoring the most idiotic of sitcoms. And here is where Guest does good, creating the lowlife pap on the telly that brings from Keith paroxysms of chortles: a Mandarin Indian family comedy with a hyperactive laugh track and a police station farce with bobbies in drag and the smuttiest of jokes.
The best of this show is probably Tom Bennett, a British comedian new to me, as Tom’s childhood friend, Pete Stupples, a smiling, sunny-natured dimwit who blurts out endlessly foolish observations on life. Unlike Tom, he’s employed, cleaning cages at the zoo, aiding, through artificial insemination, a male alpaca impregnate a female one. Pete has found his highest calling.
So, back to the plot. Tom is set up by Pete on bad dates with batty, obsessive young ladies. You’ve seen these scenes in tiresome romantic comedies. Tom finds a photo of his granddad, is perplexed because the old bloke seems Chinese, discovers that grandpa was appearing in an ancient stage production of The Mikado. An actor. The best of the Family Tree episodes is this Sunday, May 19, when Tom goes on a very funny search among dotty old theater people. From them, he learns that his old man’s old man performed with Olivier. Sort of. But he certainly showed up, for decades, as the back end, and the back two legs, of a pantomime horse. Oh, the terrible breakup of the duo who, together, constituted the faux stallion. If only the actor bending over as the front of the horse hadn’t devoured, one fatal day, a strong and pungent curry.
Unfortunately, episodes 3 and 4 are somewhat a letdown, one situated at a boxing ring and one on a farm, and that gets Family Tree through June 9. But I’m not giving up. The last four shows into July take Tom to the USA to seek his American family. And that will bring into the series some of Christopher Guest’s nonpareil ensemble: Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., and the great Fred Willard. I’ll also be looking for the TV debut here of the enthralling, indie film talent, Amy Seimetz, currently on screen in Upstream Color and behind the camera as director of The Sun Don’t Shine.