Family Tree: “Civil War”
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Family Tree: “Civil War”

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Family Tree

“Civil War”

Season 1, Episode 6

Family Tree has reached a point where it no longer needs to show The Box to indicate that its contents are the main source of the show’s momentum. That’s partially out of practical concerns—what, Tom’s going to lug an antique steamer trunk across the Atlantic with him?—but also out of consideration for the viewer, who knows how to watch the show by its sixth episode and knows that, so long as Tom keeps digging, the whole world is The Box.

But the object’s essential irony needs to be kept in mind as well. Because with the first season entering its final act, The Box has provided a greater number of questions than answers. Every time Tom opens a door to the past, it reveals four more. Just look at the epic journey that’s been prompted by Tom’s investigation into his most immediate relatives: There’s showbiz, international sporting competition, infidelity, transatlantic migration, the deadliest war in U.S. history, and now a love story that conquered the customs and taboos of the mid-19th century. It’s perfect for the image at the center of Family Tree: Tom may have started this project looking at the Chadwick clan as one solid trunk, but in his digging he’s discovered all the crazy directions the roots of that tree shoot off—and he’s getting a good idea of how that momentum is mirrored by the limbs growing above the ground, too.

That’s where Al provides Tom with the perfect foil: He’s the guy who wants the mystery. Last week, Phil rightly pointed out that Al Chadwick is another chance for Ed Begley Jr. to take lighthearted shots at his granola-munching, electric-bicycle-riding public persona—but his refusal to take any of Charles’ biography at face value betrays ties to Internet-enabled activists of a newer vintage. Yet I see no attempt to disarm or discredit armchair conspiracy theorists in Family Tree’s portrayal of Al. The show comes at this trait from a sympathetic angle, implying that the character jumps to these kinds of conclusions because he has almost everything else in life figured out. He has a successful podiatry practice, a mastery of the grilling arts, a loving spouse—but there must be some sort of uncertainty outside Al’s tiny California bubble. It’s almost a “Once In A Lifetime”-like existential crisis, a refusal to accept that this is Al’s beautiful house couched in questions about the shadows in Tom’s picture of Great-Grandma Rebecca. It’s a great “grass is always greener” contrast to Tom, demonstrating that Al’s ostensible happiness and satisfaction don’t prevent him from reading every photograph like he’s looking for evidence of the moon-landing hoax.

What seems to be tearing Tom up on the inside now are the answers that crop up right in front of him. As with Mr. Pfister’s daughter back in London, Chris O’Dowd’s character has a delightful meet-cute in Los Angeles that suggests he’s luckier in love than he lets on. And the circumstances of that meet-cute demonstrate that, like it or not, he has a very particular set of skills when it comes to colliding automobiles.

Bringing the American Civil War into the show isn’t the subtlest way of highlighting Tom’s internal tensions, but the reenactment scenes provide this week’s episode with some of its finest comedic fodder. As Tom tells Ally (Amy Seimetz) after he’s scared away Will Sasso, he’s not actually in the army—but he is playing at enlistment in the days after he witnesses the car accident. Among the reenactors, Tom discovers another community in which he’s an outcast, breaking the essential illusion of the experience at all turns. He wears sunglasses with his uniform, refuses to play dead while his bladder requires emptying, and takes a phone call from Bea during battle—it’s not that Tom disrespects the hobby, it’s just that he can’t fully invest in an activity that prompts a parking-lot fist fight between two men in full Abraham Lincoln regalia.

The scenes on the “battlefield” are the trickiest of “Civil War.” And not just because of the level of organization involved: If Christopher Guest’s greatest fear involves upsetting or offending the real-life equivalents of his pretend documentary subjects, then it must’ve been a nightmare to orchestrate a comedic setpiece within a meeting of the 17 reenactment units credited in this week’s episode. It’s an opportunity to play off the absurdity of the dedication involved in the hobby, but also one that, in less-delicate hands, could’ve lapsed into “Har har, look at those dorks in their period costumes!” The closest the episode comes to a joke like that involves a reenactor coming to the conclusion on his own: In a debriefing with Don Lake’s Harvey, the leader of the Confederate troops drops a “We may have lost the battle,” halting when he realizes he’s hoisting himself with his own historically accurate petard. 

However, the final bit of insurance comes from the once (and possibly future) insurance investigator. When Tom slips an “it’d be easy to scoff” into his mid-battle talking head, it’s Family Tree throwing up a signal of neutrality, just in case anyone’s missed the fact that “Civil War” isn’t laughing at historical reenactment. It’s not laughing at the average person interested in the activity, either—the show goes to great pains to illustrate that whatever’s funny about this week’s reenactment scenes, it’s all based on these specific characters. Tom has commitment issues. Rick is disruptively fastidious in other aspects of life. In that practice, Family Tree achieves a certain type of specificity that, from what we’ve seen so far, keeps the show out of cheap-shot territory.

And it’s not just that ludicrous uniform that’s keeping Tom from throwing himself headfirst into this variation on the Chadwick life. All throughout “Civil War,” Chris O’Dowd’s character demonstrates that there are just some parts of himself that he can’t put on mute. These are the elements of self-discovery that will ultimately prove most fruitful to the show’s protagonist: He might not want to spend his days going over models and recreations (or reenactments?) of automobile accidents, but as that scene with Seimetz and Sasso illustrates, Tom does have a knack for this sort of thing. (I love the way he estimates the speed at which Sasso’s character was driving when he rear-ended Ally.) It’s there in the scenes with the California Chadwicks’ cat, too: This idea that, with a bit of hard work, he can get over that life-long feline aversion. He can look fear in the eye for as long as he’d like, clear the besmirched names of dozen of relatives and pet thousands of cats—yet he’ll always end up saying “fuck off” to the things he truly dislikes. It’s just in his nature.

And the more he plays dress up with his ancestor’s clothes, the more the true Tom emerges organically. The magic of the moment is undone in the episode’s concluding talking head, but there’s a great thrill in watching Chris O’Dowd, as Tom, connecting the dots between his own romantic streak and the sacrifices Charles made for love. Chadwicks aren’t deserters or traitors—they stick things out, for better or for worse. For the sake of Family Tree’s sense of humor, it’s a good thing the latter happens more often than the former.

Stray observations:

  • Thanks again to Phil for filling in last week, especially considering the umpteen Sunday assignments he’s currently juggling. Give a read to his thoughts on the first season of Saturday Night Live, won’t you?
  • The American Chadwicks are largely confined to the edges of this week’s episode, but I do so enjoy the bit about “gnarlahands” that Dave offers up during the photo-analysis scene. Such a perfectly pitched bit of arcana for the character.
  • The Chadwicks and their animals: Julie has a thing for owls, and they occupy every space in her and Rick’s apartment that’s not devoted to the Civil War.
  • I’m not sure if Tom tells Will Sasso’s character to reign in the “mythical” or “mystical” racism, but it’s a great response to those leprechaun jokes either way.
  • Harvey just plain refuses to go down when he’s “shot” in the heat of “battle”: “Many of us will fall today—I will not, but over time most of you will die.”
  • Sound gun-safety advice from Rick: “Don’t ever put your mouth near the barrel.”