Family Tree debuts tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on HBO.
No one has shaped the face of modern television comedy without actually contributing to the form firsthand like Christopher Guest. Guest didn’t invent the faux-documentary; his initial dabbling in the style, the essential This Is Spinal Tap, didn’t either. But with his films Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind, the filmmaker and comedic performer perfected the art of characters showing one face to the camera, revealing others in talking-head confessionals, and bumping into one another in loose, improvisational scenes that find their laughs in awkward interaction and straight-faced sincerity. The faux-documentary’s sway over the sitcom realm is waning, but for a few years in the 2000s, Guest’s influence could be found across the television dial, sneaking into cult favorites (the original U.K. Office, Parks And Recreation) as well as legitimate hits (Modern Family, the U.S. Office). The vérité stylings of these films even cropped up in two of the most influential single-camera comedies of the era, Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And yet before Family Tree, Guest’s lone attempt to bring what he and a repertory of regular players (among them Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, and Fred Willard) had made so, so funny on film was a rejected 1999 HBO pilot, aptly titled D.O.A. Watching the initial installments of Family Tree—co-created by Guest and regular collaborator Jim Piddock—you’ll wonder what took him so long. You know, aside from the fact that those films, with their hours and hours of improvised takes on scenes outlined by Guest and his co-writers were a tremendous labor that came together after marathon sessions in an editing room.
At the center of Family Tree is Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd), a rootless 30-something seeking some tie, any tie, to an identity—a trove of which is uncovered when he inherits a chest of family knicknacks. Recently dumped and freshly unemployed, Tom’s bio is tailor-made for the IT Crowd star’s sleepy-eyed wryness. Following a smattering of supporting roles in Bridesmaids, This Is 40, and Girls, Family Tree marks O’Dowd’s first major headlining effort in the U.S., and it’s a turn that ought to lead to future leading-man parts. Tom’s stuck as the straight man among the series’ more eccentric figures, and quiet, sarcastic exasperation suits the actor just fine—see Tom’s reaction to the cryptozoological speculation of a blind date in “The Box.”
Explained via talking head in the series’ première, Tom’s identity crisis traces back to the nearest branches on the Chadwick family tree: When his parents divorced, mum dragged him off to Ireland while dad (Michael McKean) stayed in Great Britain with sister Bea (Nina Conti). It’s a broken-home scenario stocked with broken people: When Keith isn’t trying to relive the good ol’ days through musty Britcoms—cheesy, fictional fare like the copper farce Move Along, Please and the fish-out-of-water story There Goes The Neighbourhood—he’s busy perfecting a climate-controlled shoehorn that’s almost certainly lethal. Bea, meanwhile, clings to the matted fur of the monkey puppet that coaxed her out of an adolescent stupor and now broadcasts the nastiest impulses of her repressed id. The cynical Monk is a holdover from Conti’s own ventriloquism act, but he’s a natural fit for Family Tree’s world . (Like O’Dowd, the series could prove to be Conti’s big Stateside break.) The time spent with the Chadwicks in the series first four episodes goes a long way toward explaining not only why Tom is the way he is, but also why he may have pulled up and discarded his own roots at some point in the past.
It’s impossible to watch Family Tree and not compare it to the co-creators’ previous work together: The opening scene between Tom and Bea even relies on the same kind of clever bait-and-switch that kicks off Best In Show. And a healthy cross-section of the regular of Guest players is accounted for in the series’ credits, though only McKean, Piddock, and Ed Begley Jr. appear in the four episodes HBO provided for critics. (The press release bundled with the network’s screeners promised more of the director’s repertory when the show heads to the U.S.—and thus begins WillardWatch 2013.)
But while the look, feel, and deadpan comedic sensibility of the series is reminiscent of Best In Show, Waiting For Guffman, and A Mighty Wind, Family Tree is its own beast. For one, eight half-hour installments give Guest and Piddock greater range of motion in terms of outlining the series; it’s evident that Guest’s rigorousness at the editing bay has not let up, but there’s more time to tell Family Tree’s story, a greater landscape under which the series can patiently unfurl its knotty vegetation.
It’s still an ensemble piece, but the throughline is not a shared hobby or a project undertaken by a whole community: It’s a personal journey, Tom’s quest to define himself—though that quest is put toward the Zelig-like (hey, that’s another faux-documentary) ends of assimilating the identity of his most recently uncovered ancestor. For all the kooky characters in Tom’s orbit, Family Tree is an exceedingly intimate story, perhaps due to the fact that it’s partially inspired by Guest’s own inquiries into his transatlantic genealogy.
Introducing a clinically depressed monkey puppet into the proceedings starts the show on a big, broad foot, but Family Tree’s time alone with Tom is introspective and quiet—almost unnervingly still at times. Like many of the comedic works the followed the course set by This Is Spinal Tap, it would be terrifically depressing were it not for the occasional faux pas or turn of phrase. That lowers the ceiling for the highest of its comedic heights—“The Box” is a funny half-hour, but it contains few full-on belly laughs—but it lays stable ground from which the actors can improvise their way in and out of corners. There’s a searching among all of Family Tree’s main characters that goes well with this overcast tone (and the setting of the first four episodes).
For viewers who’ve followed the careers of the names above its title, Family Tree is an “It’s about damn time” proposition. Christopher Guest has been overdo to show his TV successors how the faux-documentary is truly done; O’Dowd and Conti, having garnered critical and commercial success in their native U.K., have been building up to this kind of breakthrough moment in the States. But patience is the virtue preached by Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind, and the reward for standing by for Family Tree, as in those films, is a steady stream of well-observed laughs and warm commentary on the human condition. If this is what comes from waiting for Guest, it’ll soothe the anxiety of holding for a second season.