HBO has a knack for luring notable filmmakers – as in, people who are perfectly capable of sustaining a successful career in feature films if they want – to the land of television. For its latest half-hour comedy series ‘Family Tree’, the network nabbed mockumentary king Christopher Guest. Based on the first episode, the pairing is a very comfortable fit.
The show stars Chris O’Dowd from ‘The IT Crowd’ and (perhaps more relevantly) HBO’s ‘Girls’ as Tom Chadwick, an amiable but directionless Londoner who has recently become both single and unemployed in a short period of time. When a great-aunt he never knew leaves him “a box of bits and bobs” in her will, he finds within it a curious photo of a man in full early 20th Century military regalia. Tom’s father (Guest regular Michael McKean, doing an amusing British accent) believes the photo may be his grandfather (Tom’s great-grandfather), who died long before either of them was born. Tom becomes obsessed with learning more about the man and about the family history he’d never given much thought to before. The fact that he has a lot of free time on his hands and nothing better to do may play a major role in his curiosity.
The series, then, will follow Tom as he digs into his family genealogy, traveling to do research and make odd detours along the way. It’s a strong premise for an ongoing comedy. The first stop on his quest brings him to an eccentric expert on antique photographs, who uncovers some unexpected information about the man in the photograph, and also about Tom’s great-grandfather.
The pilot episode, called ‘The Box’, starts off a little slowly and takes a bit to warm up, but is filled with classic Guest-isms and a lot of quite funny scenes. Basically every character has an odd quirk that gets highlighted to amusing effect. In his retirement, Tom’s father tinkers with inventing a shoe-cooling gadget that will finally solve the world’s nagging problem of uncomfortably warm shoes. His sister Bea (Nina Conti) carries a monkey hand puppet through which she expresses her true feelings. (The story behind that is especially hilarious.) In perhaps the best scene, Tom is set up on a blind date with a bimbo who believes that dinosaurs still live in Africa and, oddly, Edinburgh. Their uncomfortable dinner is a riot.
Fun gags also litter the background of scenes. Tom watches a trashy historical soap opera called ‘The Plantagenets’ (obviously a parody of ‘The Tudors’ and ‘The Borgias’). In my favorite bit that goes completely uncommented upon, an antique shop owner keeps framed photos of Willie Nelson and Nelson Mandela side-by-side on his desk. Because, why not?
Essentially, if you’re on Christopher Guest’s wavelength and you enjoy his movies, ‘Family Tree’ has a lot to like. This has the potential to be very successful for HBO.