Family Tree: TV Review
10:30 p.m. Sunday, May 12 (HBO)
Chris O'Dowd, Michael McKean, Lisa Palfrey, Tom Bennett, Nina Conti
HBO’s latest comedy is pure Christopher Guest, sending Chris O’Dowd in search of seriously odd relatives.
When Christopher Guest, creator of some of the funniest spoof movies (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind), was asked why he made a television show for HBO, he was blunt: It wouldn’t work on a network.
Never mind that so little of anything is working on a broadcast network outside of CBS, but Guest’s improvisational, documentary-style comedy vernacular is something you either fall on the ground about or abandon in search of something with a laugh track. There’s no way Family Tree, a quirky and hilarious gem, would have done any business inside a big tent, trying to appeal to the masses.
His comedy is a potent mix of sophisticated structure, offbeat improvisation and broad weirdness. Each is brilliantly at work on Family Tree, the story of 30-year-old Tom Chadwick (Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd), who inherits a box of oddities and uses its contents to seek lost family members, often with hysterical results.
Written and created by Guest and Jim Piddock (who also has a role as quirky friend Glenn Pfister, owner of Mr. Pfister’s Bits & Bobs), the half-hour show works its magic the patented Guest way: by slowly, with pinpoint accuracy, drilling down into the absurdist ways of ordinary people.
Take Tom’s sister, Bea (Nina Conti), who in her youth was traumatized while on vacation when she saw a puffin masturbating. In therapy, to counteract an unwillingness to speak, she was allowed to “let out my inner voice with the use of a hand puppet.” Now she carries around a monkey named Monk, who spews all kinds of filth as Bea plays ventriloquist. Tom’s father, Keith (Michael McKean), loves ludicrous old sitcoms with lowbrow humor, and his wife, Luba (Lisa Palfrey), appears to be an Eastern European who can’t speak much English and is a terrible, terrible cook.
The first four episodes of Family Tree take place in England -- Tom has an Irish accent because he lived there for nine years after his mother died -- and the final four of season one take place in the U.S. In the future, Guest says the show could go anywhere.
As Tom embarks on his quest, he brings along his best friend, Pete (Tom Bennett), an affable fool, but the search provides a steady stream of the fascinatingly odd characters Guest loves to use.
In the first episode, a photo that could be of Tom’s great-great-grandfather allows Guest to demonstrate the type of show Family Tree will be. Tom tracks down a “strange expert in the field of antique photos,” who says the man is actually a famous British general, not related to Tom. It turns out that Tom’s father actually took the photograph. However, the expert has tracked down Tom’s great-great-grandfather, and he turns out to be Chinese -- which brings out Keith’s racism, a trait he’s apparently unclear he possesses. More research proves the great-great-grandfather wasn’t Chinese but an actor playing a role. Seems he gave up photography to take on acting.
More quirky meetings with hilarious elderly British people take Tom and Pete to a theater where his father shared the stage with Laurence Olivier -- as a barely seen background player, the pinnacle of his acting career. But, typical of Guest, it doesn’t end there as Tom discovers his great-great-grandfather ultimately found “success” as the butt end of a pantomime horse.
As the comedy grows, Tom and Pete buy the costume out of storage and use it to enter a famous pantomime horse race, which through the years has been forced to let in just about anyone in a costume. Our wandering heroes are bested by a zebra (“a biped!”) and a panda named PandaExpression.
Welcome to Family Tree.
The series works on multiple levels, but clearly one is O’Dowd’s charm. Although Pete sets Tom up on a series of dates (one woman believes dinosaurs still exist), he would rather stick to his mission.
When Tom shares that with his father, Keith tells him the family has a saying: “In our clan, family is what disappears when you’re not looking at it.”
Here’s hoping HBO lets Family Tree grow for many seasons.