FAMILY TREE Preview: HBO Comedy Starring Chris O’Dowd Is a Subtle Winner

     May 11, 2013

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HBO has put a lot of stock in British-based comedy over the years, particularly in their partnership with The Office‘s Ricky Gervais, his writing partner Stephen Merchant and their brilliantly bizarre friend Karl Pilkington.  There’s also the current series Veep, which although it is based entirely in American politics, is written wholly by Britons.  Their latest comedy offering, Family Tree, which is paired with Veep in a Sunday comedy block, has its roots in Britain, but does reach out across the pond as well, reflecting the dual-citizenship sensibilities of its creator, Christopher Guest.

Fans of Guest (who created seminal works This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, and served as a big influence on Ricky Gervais in creating The Office‘s style) have been waiting for something new since 2006’s For Your Consideration, which was fun, though not his best effort.  Family Tree, like his other work, takes on a mockumentary style (with varying success) and a minimalistic atmosphere, where most of the humor is found in subtle phrasing and background content, such as a poster at a theater in Hove for “Avatar: The Musical.”  Hit the jump for more on Family Tree and why it’s definitely worth tuning in for. 

family-tree-chris-odowdFamily Tree stars Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) as Tom Chadwick, a 30-year-old Londoner who has just lost his job and his girlfriend.  He inherits a chest of family knickknacks from his Great-Aunt Victoria, who he barely remembers, and finds within it a photograph of a grand looking man he believes to be his great-grandfather.  Thus, the quest begins.  What starts off as a vague interest turns into a hobby and then into Tom’s main reason for being, as he tracks relatives down (including, in Episode 4, as far away as California: “Why did my ancestors move back to England??”), uncovers family secrets, and meets with relatives he never knew existed.

Christopher Guest brings back much of his regular film cast for the project, including Michael McKean as Tom’s father who has a passion for 70s comedies, and Ed Begley, Jr. as Tom’s California cousin.  There are some new faces as well, like Jim Piddock as Mr. Pfister, Tom’s neighbor who helps him along with his historical journey; and Tom Bennett as Pete, Tom’s lifelong friend and good-natured goober.

The half-hour comedy will span eight episodes, the first four of which I’ve screened.  Consumed in bulk like that, the series is addicting, and plays out a lot like Guest’s film work.  For those watching week to week though, especially given its often subtle humor, it may not become “must-see TV,” but it deserves to be despite a few small faults.

family-tree-chris-odowdThough Guest pioneered the mockumentary style that so many comedy series borrow from now, in Family Tree it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The show is a one-camera setup, but there’s no shaky-cam effect (thankfully), and from the start it feels like a narrative feature, never a documentary.  Though Tom and others (like his sister Bea, played by Nina Conti) are interviewed, there’s no explanation, as there is in Spinal Tap, about why this documentary is happening, or what it’s hoping to achieve.  There’s no interaction with the “crew,” and it feels, disappointingly, a lot like the criticism that Modern Family has gotten for using the one-on-one interviews to give insight into a documentary without explanation or purpose.

Still, it’s a small complaint in what is otherwise a charming series that’s comedic but also sincere, and that, oddly, often ends its episodes on a melancholic note.  The humor of the first four episodes is wholly British, with lots of cultural in-jokes (things like regionalism, where sometimes the punchline is just someone saying, “in Hove!”) that I’m not sure American audiences who aren’t intense Anglophiles will really get or care about.  But Chris O’Dowd as Tom is charming and likable, and the supporting cast (particularly Nina Conti, whose character carries with her a foul-mouthed sock puppet named Monkey) is, as in all Guest productions, fantastic.  It’s not just Tom who goes on this family journey, but his father and sister as well, and their interactions with the colorful characters they meet are just as entertaining (or moving) as Tom’s.

chris-odowd-family-treeThere are also a few interesting subplots, one of which includes Tom looking for love after his devastating break-up, so peppered throughout the episodes are some truly unfortunate dates (and a very obvious potential love interest) that will surely get resolved before the end of the series.  There’s also a recurring joke where characters watch fake British TV shows like “The Plantagenets” and a vintage police comedy in the vein of Are You Being Served? that all give perceptive commentary about TV shows and their watchers, along with the fun of just being hilariously unfunny.

Guest has an exceptional talent for setting up encounters that provoke naturally awkward dialogue and reactions, and his actors (particularly those who have worked with him for awhile) capture that naturalism and improvisation beautifully.  But if the first episode doesn’t grab you, consider waiting a few weeks and binging on a few at a time.  Family Tree may be Guest coming full circle and embracing on the small screen the now ubiquitous style he popularized in films. He deserves our time in watching this series unfold.

Family Tree premieres Sunday, May 12th at 10:30 p.m. 

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