As Family Tree has built to this, the penultimate episode of its first season, I’ve grown to love more and more Tom Chadwick’s inability to find an answer. It’s not so much that he keeps on turning up dead ends—it’s more that the straightforward explanations of his family history turn out to be anything but. The goal of the family tree project is to provide clarity, but the story of the Chadwicks is only more muddled with each passing discovery. Chris O’Dowd’s character set out looking for easy, succinct answers about why he is the way he is—perhaps the confusion he feels could be summed up by the chaos, ambiguity, and mistaken identities and motivations that preceded his time on this planet.
Part of me frets that the show is repeating the same beats every week, and that fretting isn’t soothed by the way “Indians” plays out. Once more, Tom has been presented with a piece to the Chadwick family puzzle, but after careful inspection, it turns out that the piece doesn’t go where he assumes. The letter about a forbidden love “of mixed blood” introduced in “Civil War” refers not to Rebecca Chadwick’s Native American ancestry—she belongs to a wholly different tribe, one forced out of its native land a millennia ago and one whose persecution gives Tom his widest leap to self-identification to date. It’s a stretch of epic proportions for Tom to compare his personal plight to that of the Jewish people, but it’s a good setup for a season-finale realization that maybe, just maybe, Tom isn’t going to find all of the answers he seeks in the The Box. In that light, some bait-and-switch fatigue is unavoidable, but “Indians” illustrates that there wouldn’t be much humor to Family Tree if everything Tom assumes about his relatives was proven correct.
“Indians” also marks the full-fledged return of Bea and Monk, and my excitement to see them again only reinforces that Monk is one of my favorite new TV characters of 2013. That’s stretching the definition of “new,” though: Nina Conti’s been using the scruffy little pessimist in her act for years, and their onstage relationship defines the interactions between Monk and Bea. Yet this gives their scenes together a genuine sense of history and backstory; on the technical side, it means that Conti has a good grip on the puppet’s voice, mannerisms, and character traits, all of which make him appear so much more alive on-camera.
All those backlogged performances must’ve informed how Conti-as-Monk’s in-the-moment reactions on the Family Tree set as well. The character makes it through the stop at Joe Lo Truglio’s roadside souvenir stand without bringing up how the trinkets sold there trivialize a grave historical injustice, but he does manage to express some wry skepticism at the authenticity of Lo Truglio’s wares. “The genuine article in your shop and not a museum” is one of the best deadpan punchlines in a first season of such zingers.
Monk’s a great device for bringing Bea out of herself, but he’s become a character in his own right, too. He has likes and dislikes, and relationships (mostly contentious) with the people in Bea’s life. Conti weaves a rich existence for Monk, and that extends to this onscreen incarnation, who suffers from unlikely afflictions (“I’m a little worried I have deep-vein thrombosis”) and exhibits as much personal anxiety as any of the show’s human characters (on the headdress he acquires at Lo Truglio’s shop: “I don’t look like a lady?”).
And, appropriate for the series but especially this episode, “Indians” demonstrates that Monk is just as capable at revealing a secret as any of his non-puppet counterparts. In a bit that underlines the depth of the unwanted thoughts Bea channels through her monkey, puppet catches puppeteer off-guard by blowing the lid off of some deeper feelings for Pete. Tom Bennett’s character occasionally feels like an adjunct to the main action on Family Tree, but if Bea ends up acting on these emotions, Pete might just end up brought into the Chadwick fold. Which would make Pete and Monk’s argument in Tom’s rental car less of a heated exchange and more of a screwball-comedy setup—though maybe it’s Monk who’s the one in love with Pete.
This week’s episode’s place in Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock’s larger outline for the season is notable for the way that structure allows the actors to bend the rules of improvisation here and there. The collaboration- and momentum-building philosophy of “Yes, and?” is thrown out the window for the button to Bea and Tom’s first scene with the California Chadwicks: Tom mentions that Pete once suffered from athlete’s foot, but Tom Bennett counters that information from Chris O’Dowd with “That was herpes.” That sort of denial gets a big laugh, but it tends to bring most improvised scenes to a halt: The indispensable improv manual Truth In Comedy cites an example of a domestic scene at the Second City being derailed by an actor responding to the line “But what about the children” with “We don’t have any children!” A big laugh in the moment, but once the reality of the relationship is undone, there’s nowhere for the scene to go. (Well, the scene could go into meta territory where the players dismantle every assumed truth about the couple, but that’s a high-wire act with a high probability of exhausting the audience.)
But each scene of Family Tree was sketched out before it was performed, so Christopher Guest didn’t have to worry about keeping things on track after Bennett’s “herpes” line. He also had the advantage of cutting the scene off in that moment, probably with the knowledge that the conversation around the table was unlikely to arrive at a bigger laugh. (He might have even made the edit on-set, calling cut after Bennett lowered the boom.) Same goes for the haggling between Tom and Oscar Nuñez’s car-rental agent: Negotiation can be the death of comedy, but with the guiding hand of Guest and the luxury of multiple takes, Nuñez and Chris O’Dowd get the maximum laughs out of this exchange. The dialogue’s fresh from the actors’ mouths, but the rhythms are as old as a Chadwick & Balducci routine: The second beat of the gag finds O’Dowd digging up a very funny, very vaudevillian “That’s higher than the second price.”
Outline or no, Family Tree itself takes on the winding, unpredictable rhythms of an improvisation, which continues to make the show a joy to tune into week after week. It might be easy to see the twists and turns coming one week away from the end of the first season, but the show’s capacity to surprise remains. It’s in the larger narrative and the individual scenes as well. More than anyone else—give or take a Larry David, Sasha Baron Cohen, or a Loren Bouchard—Christopher Guest has discovered the way to take the spontaneity and crackling energy of improvised comedy and inject it with enough narrative discipline to keep the bits moving forward. In all likelihood, next week’s finale will contain some scraps of closure and a hint of romantic fulfillment, but that’ll just be the icing on scenes like Bea riding the miniature horse in “Indians.” As in that moment, it’s the little things that count the most on Family Tree.
- You can chalk up Tom, Bea, and Pete’s insensitive behavior on the reservation to a lack of accurate Native American representation overseas—or you could just blame it on Tom’s inability to read the word “Mojave” correctly (“my sweet little Moh-jayv girl”).
- Here’s another satisfying aspect of Family Tree’s repeated bait-and-switch techniques: All too often in fiction, familial connections are summed up conveniently and tidily. “This character acts like this because their parents act like this”—or they act like that because their parents don’t act like that, etc. Tom’s search adheres to a much more authentic representations of the ties that bind: They’re not a neatly arrayed diagram, but rather a messy tangle of connections shooting off in all directions. Unfortunately, Family Knot is not as catchy a title as Family Tree.
- Dear universe: Please find a series on which Joe Lo Truglio can play a regular for more than 13 episodes. In spite of my initial, upfronts-inspired misgivings, I’d be very, very happy if that show ends up being Brooklyn Nine Nine. The pilot’s great, and Lo Truglio’s hangdog side is a good fit within the varying dynamics at play in the first episode.
- Like a British Downton Abbey viewer dropping into an A.V. Club comments section uninvited, Pete spoils Sherlock Holmes: The New Frontier for the elders of the Mojave tribe. Though they would’ve seen that coming if they’d previously read Arthur Conan Doyle’s novella The Case Of The Improbable Cause.
- There’s a great callback to Al and Kitty’s upbeat, whitebread “R&B” every time Tom fires up the convertible—I assume the California Chadwicks pushed the only CD they own off on their English cousin after he was too polite to tell them it sounds like shit.
- Only one thing could top Kitty’s bizarre “favorite saying”—“What’s crazier than a time zone”—and it’s the utterly baffled look on Ed Begley Jr.’s face after that line is delivered. Now there’s a natural, unrehearsed reaction for you.
- The Chadwicks and their animals: All known photographs of Rebecca feature her mounted on a horse; Bea gets a huge kick out of her ride on Chief Running Bull’s personal Li’l Sebastian.
- WillardWatch 2013 update: Fred Willard is in the end credits, which suggests Pete and Bea might’ve had a run-in with Mike while they were in the Jacuzzi. If that’s the case, I hope it ends up as a DVD extra somewhere; I have a hunch Mike would have a wonderfully cringe-inducing talk with Monk.