Tom Chadwick starts Family Tree as a man in search of identity, but the inheritance that gives the first episode its title can also be reshaped and reformed depending on what the latest installment calls for. This week, it’s a costume chest: In spite of the information that serves as the cliffhanger ending of “The Box,” Harry Chadwick wasn’t “a Chinese person”—he’s not even supposed to be a Chinese person in that photo. After a little bit more digging, it’s revealed that the picture comes from Great Grandpa Chadwick’s turn as Nanki-Poo in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, one of the many faces and he wore in his time as an actor, an occupation he took up after his time as a photographer. It’s fitting that Harry was an actor; if Tom doesn’t know what his role in life is, why not map himself onto a man who flitted from personality to personality? At least one of those costumes has to fit.
However, if Tom’s looking to model his life on Harry’s or hoping to tap into a latent creative streak, he’s looking in the wrong place. As Tom learns from his visit to the Regent’s Theater, Harry played many roles, but none as well as that of a horse’s ass. Literally and figuratively: In the days when the theater was a lighthearted escape from between-war drudgery, Harry Chadwick was the first-billed, back end of Chadwick & Balducci, a celebrated pantomime horse act. Legend has it, the duo went its separate ways due to a particularly strong curry (Tom’s own Balducci, Pete, will gladly fill in the blanks for you), but the true straw that broke the horse’s back was a bit of infidelity between Balducci and Harry’s wife. The scene at the theater is a brilliant piece of wind-up and pay-off: Chris O’Dowd and Tom Bennett’s see-sawing reactions to Harry’s theatrical credits are a testament to the alchemy of a guest production, the spontaneity of the dialogue obscuring the rough outline of the scene. When the true nature of the Chadwick-Balducci breakup is revealed, there’s a spark of recognition and sympathy about O’Dowd—a well-played performance choice that factors into the final scene of “Treading The Boards.” Harry’s path
Two episodes into Family Tree, there are already indications that Tom is sinking deep into his genealogical pursuits. When Pete is over at Tom’s flat, the host can hardly be bothered with his guest’s “something productive”—he’d rather suss out his great grandfather’s birthplace than line up a shelf of beer bottles. He’s working his way toward being a prototypical Guest obsessive, perhaps more willing to sacrifice his sense of self because he’s not sure there’s a self there.
As such, O’Dowd faces a bit of a challenge in these early episodes. Tom starts off a blank slate, sketched out largely by the actor’s tics and charms. The information about his life is doled out in a manner reminiscent to the Arrested Development scene where George-Michael Bluth is asked to talk about himself and blurts out only the most mundane details. He’s guarding something, and that something pokes its head through the bars during his visit to Harry Chadwick’s grave: We only hear Tom’s side of the story, but in that side, Sarah cheated on him. And thus a connection is made, one that will pull him deeper and deeper into the ancestry game, a motivation stronger than determining the birthdates of his great, great grandparents.
“Treading The Boards” is something of an archeological dig itself: There’s Tom’s metaphorical exhuming of his relatives, compounded by the blind date who’s fixated on bones and three characters—Tom’s father and the employees of the Regent’s Theater—devoted to outdated forms of entertainment. And it’s not enough that the objects of their fascination are passé—they’re relics of specifically British forms, the characters appointing themselves guardians of music-hall kitsch and government-subsidised sitcoms. Reminders of a simpler time, yes, but also a part of a shared national identity: Mitch doesn’t just light up at the footage on the Regent’s centennial highlight reel because Guy Siner is enthusiastically riffing off of what little context the video supplies. Siner’s character is also swelling with the pride of being connected to these long-forgotten performers simply by the location of their births. A keen knowledge of pantomime horses and “the Breen burn” are a larger, possibly toxic form of Tom constructing the Chadwick family tree: The activities involve a fair amount of time travel, but Mitch, Rex, and Keith are interested in staying in the past. Keith would do well to follow his own advice: Archeology, “is like any other ‘-ology’: Best left to the scientists.”
Or best left to the people making new TV shows. Family Tree was conceived and plotted by two writer-performers with personal histories as muddied as those of the two countries their show comically sketches: Christopher Guest is an American with familial ties to English nobility; Jim Piddock is a Brit who’s spent most of his professional life in the United States. They’re qualified to take a sideways look at their homelands, and the U.K.-set portion of the series doesn’t pull punches when it might confuse and/or alienate its American audience. Move Along, Please so closely mirrors the look and tone of a bygone era of British television that it could be mistaken for the authentic article; Tom and Pete’s trial run in the horse costume prompts an allusion to footballer Tony Adams. Family Tree belongs to neither nation, nor does it condescend to them.
If you watch enough of Guest’s body of work, a formula emerges: Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show, and A Mighty Wind each follow a sort of “raw ingredients to main course” path, as the filmmaker introduces his subjects, throws them together in various configurations, sends them to a large cocktail-party like scene, stages the climax at the event that brings these kooks together, and concludes with some “Where are they now?” retrospection. To allow for the freedom in performance that produces the biggest laughs in these pieces, rigid guidelines must be in place; a byproduct of that is an episodic structure that lends itself well to television: Each step that contributes to the journey that could’ve been Family Tree: The Movie functions well as another 26-minute installment of Family Tree: The TV Show.
It must be hard to shake the allure and ease of that formula, because it affects “Treading The Boards” for better and worse. The episode works like a condensed Best In Show about the musty corners of 20th-century British theater; surely there’s a script populated by the contemporaries of Mitch, Rex, and Annual Costume Horse Derby President Nigel Robson-Jones in a drawer in Guest’s study. Giving the costume race the same level of precedent as Best In Show’s Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show helps “Treading The Boards” stand out from the other episodes of Family Tree, while still contributing to the full, long-form story of Tom’s search for self.
But formula can also unintentionally let predictability creep into a creative endeavor. There’s no way to predict how bad Tom’s date with the bone woman will be, but it’s safe to assume that, when Pete offers to set up his friend once more, sparks won’t fly. These scenes function as a delightful palate cleanser and a purely comedic supplement to the more emotionally charged material of the main genealogy quest, but Tom can only sit through so much inane conversation before antsiness sets in. He’s unlucky in love, but the ways in which the details of Harry’s life echo through Tom’s are a more effective way of reinforcing this.
Still, to establish a recurring device like that so early in the series is a sign that Family Tree isn’t groping around for an ID like its protagonist is. Guest and Piddock know where this thing is going, and even if it seems like they might end up repeating themselves, there’s always the next knickknack in the chest to turn Tom’s attention toward. Provided his vision isn’t impeded by a pantomime horse costume.
- The costume-horse race is a big, broad setpiece—but very, very funny in its broadness—but there are a lot of blink-or-you’ll miss ’em gags sprinkled throughout “Treading The Boards.” For example, keep your eye on Luda and her exercise bike during the opening scene between Keith and Tom. It takes a few scenes to rise to the full potential of its humor, but the “Where Harry tied up his horse” joke pays off nicely, too.
- The ties between the “light entertainment” that so enthuses Rex and Mitch and the old shows Keith can’t stop watching are cleverly underlined by the fact that Guy Siner, who plays Mitch, co-starred on the long-running BBC comedy ’Allo! ’Allo!
- The tell of Nina Conti’s talent as a ventriloquist: My eye is so frequently drawn away from Bea and toward Monk, even when Monk isn’t talking. She really puts life into that little guy. (Having watched the first four episodes, I can say that this comes home to roost in spectacularly cringe-worthy fashion next week, by the way.)
- Tom and Mr. Pfister try to figure out the science of genealogy: “Do you think there’s a chance the Chinese gene could skip a generation—like baldness or blue eyes?” “My grandfather was German, you don’t see me annexing countries.”