Family Tree: “The Austerity Games”
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Family Tree: “The Austerity Games”

It’s an unfortunate bit of timing that Family Tree’s debut coincided with that of Arrested Development’s Netflix episodes. The hoopla surrounding new installments of the beloved-but-cancelled series made it difficult for any new TV comedy to capture the public conversation this May—even one shepherded by a figure as influential as Christopher Guest. But from a pure presentational standpoint, the timing is rough for Family Tree because, in the time that passed between the airing of Tom Chadwick’s second and third genealogical investigations, an entire “season” of a similarly themed, similarly formatted show arrived, fit to be consumed in large gulps. After three episodes and four weeks, the less-than-blockbuster-sized audience that’s tuning into Family Tree is still getting only the slightest hint of what this show’s about. By contrast, a viewer with the proper will- and bladder-power could’ve had all of the new Arrested Development episodes figured out by 7:30 a.m. last Sunday—and then they could’ve re-figured them out before the weekend was over. Both series are set up as forest-for-the-trees puzzles; in the case of Family Tree, the individual pieces of that puzzle are being given greater amounts of time to marinate.

Is a traditional, weekly rollout hurting Family Tree? Perhaps in the sense that it keeps the audience waiting for the answers to the latest Chadwick family mystery—but until the rise of binge-viewing, that’s simply how television told long-term stories like this. Daytime viewers have never had to wait long for the conclusion of the latest soap-opera cliffhanger, but the beauty of the old-school method of primetime, serialized storytelling is its measured pace, the act of giving the folks at home just enough information to get them to tune in again next week. Also: The balancing act of crafting individual episodes that can function as standalone pieces while still contributing toward a larger picture. Getting too hung up on where Family Tree will next take Tom is to ignore the fact that this show truly has a way with minute-to-minute laughs.  

“The Austerity Games” is doubly at risk for this, because it lays down some weighty bread crumbs for later episodes. Fraught with the most meaning: The revelation that the Chadwicks emigrated to the United Kingdom from the United States, doubling back on a migrational path thanks to Tom’s great-great grandfather, who was born in Maryland. That little turn sets up the entire back half of this first season—but it also brings about some great reactions from Chris O’Dowd and Michael McKean. (“Another reason for you to hate the French,” Tom offers his father as a way of absorbing the shock.) For “The Austerity Games” to be at all memorable on an episodic basis, moments like that have to land—and they can’t be too obvious in their perceived importance. In this case, the birthplace of Charles Chadwick comes up as a byproduct of Tom’s latest genealogical digging. It doesn’t come off as an afterthought, and Guest and Jim Piddock don’t break out their highlighters for the reveal—it simply opens up a door that hadn’t been there before. And, fortunately, it does so with a laugh.

Elsewhere, “The Austerity Games” raises an important kink in Tom’s journey of self-discovery: The central question of Family Tree isn’t just “Who is Tom Chadwick?”—it’s “Who is Tom Chadwick, and why was he given this trunk?” That element of the character’s comedic quest hadn’t really occurred to me until Tom comes out and asks about it in tonight’s episode. He’s only incrementally closer to getting an answer, because the woman who could provide it is dead—and also because there wouldn’t be much cause for episodes beyond “The Austerity Games” if Tom did have his answer.

These are all mysteries that Family Tree will clear up in time—their distracting quality apparent in the fact that I’ve gone 600-plus words about “The Austerity Games” without mentioning Tom’s visit with some old boxing pros (delightful), Bea and Monk’s disastrous debut as a ventriloquism duo (just long enough to keep the discomfort humor from curdling into something nastier), or the latest bouts of cluelessness from Pete. Tonight’s episode also features a nice piece of talking-head work from O’Dowd and Conti, gleefully pushing one another down a dark corridor as they fill in the backstory of the Chadwick’s grandparents’ untimely demise. The suggestion that Lydia and William Chadwick perished in a hot-air balloon accident initially seems too jokey to work, but the actors’ commitment to the “tragic” end of “tragicomic” keeps the gag grounded. As a contrast to what neither of her characters can do for each other at the end of the episode, Conti boldly steps in and salvages the whole bit, offering up the killer reinforcement, “We were never allowed balloons at our birthday parties.”

It’s moments like this that drive home the notion that Family Tree—or any comedy as deadpan as this one, really—is a game of patience. The threads left hanging by “The Austerity Games”—the Chadwicks’ American roots, Bea suggesting “maybe Tom’s on the right track”—are enough to pull my interest toward next week’s episode, but they don’t induce any sort of cliffhanging anxiety about the secrets revealed in the first season’s remaining chapters. The series practices forms of patience externally as well as internally, preferring to unfurl laughs like Pete’s inability to grasp the true nature of Mildred and Victoria’s relationship. Family Tree might mystify some viewers because it’s still in the process of teaching those viewers what to watch for. Because of this, it’s for the best that we have another seven days before the next episode with which to mull over “The Austerity Games.” That talking head where Tom inadvertently compares himself to a black hole (“Sucking different celestial bodies and debris into the vast darkness, from which not even sunlight can escape. And then they implode on themselves”) deserves a few more spins, at least.

Stray observations:

  • Pete can be a bit of a nuisance, but I think Tom Bennett might end up the secret MVP of Family Tree. He certainly made enough physical sacrifices for the show, throwing himself to the floor in the attempt to lift Victoria’s shot put, then risking some serious whiplash absorbing fake blows in the boxing ring.
  • Mr. Pfister isn’t good for much beyond a quick laugh, but his “one quick way” of confirming that William’s boxing jersey belonged to a Chadwick—sniffing the garment, then sniffing Tom—is one of my favorite jokes of the series so far.
  • There are jokes in “The Austerity Game” where Chris O’Dowd’s mastery of understatement really sings. I love the way he says “That’s Pete Stupples—he works at a zoo.” Tom’s description of the shot put in the stroller “This is what happens when siblings procreate” is great, too.
  • Keith might be a shit inventor, but he could have a future in coining aphorisms. Keith: “Family is what disappears when you’re not looking at it.” Tom: “I don’t think that’s a saying.” Keith: “Well, now it is.”
  • I choose to believe the inclusion of the egg-and-spoon race in the montage of prospective events for the 1948 Summer Olympics is an allusion to SCTV’s “Chariots Of Eggs” and will not be persuaded otherwise. 

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