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Family Tree: Be His Guest

by Ethan Alter May 13, 2013 8:00 am
<i>Family Tree:</i> Be His Guest

With his first HBO series Family Tree, Christopher Guest becomes an active participant in the ongoing small-screen mockumentary boom he helped lay the groundwork for through movies like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and the granddaddy of them all, This is Spinal Tap. (Ricky Gervais has been very vocal about Guest's work inspiring him to go off and make The Office, which in turn led to the U.S. Office, as well as Parks and Rec, Modern Family and so on.) Guest's movies are hysterical (well, except for the last one before his apparently self-imposed hiatus, For Your Consideration), but it was an open question as to whether he'd be able to translate his skills to TV's long-form storytelling model as opposed to the 80 to 90 minutes his movies run.

And if I had to judge Family Tree based purely on last night's series premiere, I'm not sure how enthusiastically I would have recommended that people tune in. It's a relatively subdued half-hour, heavy on exposition and character introductions and light on laughs -- more like the first act in a film than an episode of television. Filmed on location in England, the show is centered around 30-year-old slacker Tom Chadwick (the great and deservedly in-demand Chris O'Dowd), who is in the midst of getting over a bad break-up and needs something to occupy his mind. He finds this much-needed distraction in a big box of family tchotchkes that he inherits from his dead aunt, a gift that's passed along to him by his working-class Da, Keith (played by Guest's Spinal Tap bandmate Michael McKean, pulling his old David St. Hubbins accent out of storage). Combing through the items, he finds a photo of an ancestor clad in military garb and decides to investigate the man's identity. Answering that question, however, raises a bunch of new ones about his family's not-so-illustrious history. When he's not off playing detective, he tolerates the antics of his best mate Pete (Tom Bennett), who is forever trying to set him up with women that have more than a few screws loose, and his sister Bea (Nina Conti), who suffers from the same psychological affliction that Mel Gibson did in The Beaver -- namely, the need to carry a hand puppet (a monkey, rather than a beaver) with her everywhere she goes that can give voice to her inner thoughts.

The first sign that Guest isn't entirely used to the whole TV thing is how long it takes him to get this set-up off the ground. Scenes that he probably would have cut down (if not eliminated entirely) in one of his movies are allowed to ramble on here with little comic or narrative payoff. In fact, the episode only feels like it's really getting started in the last five minutes, as Guest builds up to a revelation that won't pay off until next week's episode. The characters don't really snap into focus either, with O'Dowd coming across as aggressively mopey while Conti and Bennett are obnoxious in an off-putting way. As pilots go, Family Tree's is a disappointment, particularly considering the pedigree of the talent in front of and behind the camera.

Fortunately, though, I have seen next week's episode as well as the two after that and I can honestly tell you that the show gets better. Much, much better. Once O'Dowd is off on his family history-themed walkabout, Guest finds a structure that works for his particular sensibility, with each episode based around a specific item or ancestor that Tom wants to learn more about. Inevitably, what he hopes to find is decidedly at odds with the reality of his lineage. The second installment, for example, finds Tom tracking one deceased relative to the theater where he made his living as an actor. But instead of playing Hamlet, this Chadwick trod the boards as... well, I'm not going to spoil it for you, as the revelations that Guest and his co-writer Jim Piddock (a regular fixture in Guest's movies who also has a supporting role here) build to in each episode are generally surprising and almost always funny. O'Dowd's performances improves with each installment as well; a likable actor by nature, he manages to function as both the show's straight man and its live wire, riffing off the eccentric people around him while not going as big and broad as they do.

As exponentially as the show improves between the pilot and episodes 2, 3 and 4, I should say that there are elements that never entirely click, starting with Bennett's best friend character, who comes across like Guest's attempt to give us a Ricky Gervais type in a show that doesn't really benefit from that particular kind of personality. And I'm hoping that the still-sharp McKean gets to do a bit more than sit around watching old episodes of a (fake) British cop comedy called Move Along, Please. (On the other hand, this simulation of a terrible Britcom is so on-point and hilarious, it's hard to complain about it being so prominently featured.) Even with these lingering problems, I'm sticking with Family Tree for the duration of its eight-episode run and I encourage you to do to same, especially if you found the pilot disappointing. It may not be Guffman-level great, but the series does ultimately prove that Guest hasn't lost his mockumentary mojo.

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