Summer 2013 Review: Family Tree

27 May

Family Tree

Family Tree is a new HBO show from Chris Guest, the man behind cult mockumentary style films Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman, and For Your Consideration, as well as his most famous but most different from the others, This is Spinal Tap, which came several years before the rest.  Many directors and writers have recurring elements and favored actors and actresses, but Guest is much more consistent than most in both of these matters.  Basically all of his films, and this TV show, are satirical documentaries, with people talking to the camera, and a high rate of overall silliness and bizarre characters, just taking on different subjects – a reunion concert of folk bands, a film festival, and a dog show, for example.  In addition, he’s developed a full repository of actors who appear in all of his films; Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr, Catherine O’Hara, John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, and others.

Family Tree is also co-produced by the BBC so we know that Britain or British people will be involved somehow, and indeed England is where we begin.  The premise of Family Tree, advertisements and trailers have told me,  is that it’s about a young Englishman searching for and discovering his crazy family, full of Christopher Guest players, in Los Angeles.  However, I would never have known that from the first episode which doesn’t even get out of Britain.  Family Tree is the only show I can think of which doesn’t actually get up to its ostensible premise in the first episode.

What does happen is this.  Chris O’Dowd (Kristen Wiig’s love interest in Bridesmaids) plays a young man who has been kind of depressed of late, having lost his job and his girlfriend in the past few months. He and his sister meet his dad for dinner, where he finds an old photograph in a chest left by a deceased family member as part of a shabby inheritance.  He begins to investigate the photo, taking it to an old expert on these things who lets him know that the photo is not of his relative, but rather was taken by his relative.  That’s where we end up. Presumably that somehow leads to his eventual family history trip stateside as he continues to learn more information.

What this does contain is many classic Christopher Guest elements.  Every single character, with the exception of our straight man, played by O’Dowd, is extremely bizarre and quirky.  His sister is a ventriloquist who must carry around a monkey puppet at all times to ensure her continuing mental stability; we see a quick scene of her working at a bank with the monkey.  Their dad, portrayed by Michael McKean is a very strange dude who retired to begin his life’s work of creating a great invention.  All he has so far is a shoehorn attached to a fan which keeps your shoes cool on a hot day before you put them on.  The man to whom O’Down is directed to bring his photograph for research purposes is a very odd older gentleman with his own distinctive strange mannerisms, and he creates landmarks in a bottle, which he considers vastly superior and more interesting to ships in a bottle. O’Dowd watches ten seconds of a fake TV show Tudors rip-off, The Plantagenets.  Even the minor characters are a bit off.  O’Down is set up on a date with a seemingly nice girl who seems to believe the Loch Ness monster is real.

It wasn’t mostly laugh out loud funny, though there were a couple of solid moments, but I did enjoy the experience overall.  If you like Christopher Guest movies, you’ll probably like it, if you don’t, there’s a good chance you won’t.  Chris O’Dowd is an extremely likable straight man, and I think his presence may increase the chance of people liking the show who don’t like Christopher Guest movies, as those sometimes don’t even have any normal characters to center them.  It wasn’t quite as exciting as I was expecting right off the bat, but it’s a promising enough beginning.  It doesn’t promise at this juncture to be an overall classic but it seems like some solid programming.

Will I watch it again? Yes, but at least as much based on the track record of the people involved in the show than on the quality of the episode alone.  That’s not to say it was bad; rather it felt more incomplete than nearly any other show I can remember watching.  More than most pilots, this felt like the first half hour of a movie, or at least a miniseries, rather than a self-contained episode pitching a premise for an ongoing series.  I look forward to revisiting the whole when it’s all done and seeing how it stacks up.

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