By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 12, 2013 at 7:00PM
Season 1, Episode 1: "The Box"
It's been seven far-too-long years since the last feature effort from Christopher Guest, and besides a failed pilot for the U.S. adaptation of the U.K. hit "The Thick Of It" and appearing alongside his regular roster players in a sketch for the 2012 Oscars, not much as been heard from him. But the writer/director is back at HBO with "Family Tree," a new comedy series that finds him back within the faux-doc aesthetic (which seemingly every sitcom uses now) and best of all, still retaining his touch for beautifully deadpan humor, rich wordplay and characters as odd as they are lovable too. In short, Guest hasn't lost a step.
Like most pilots or first episodes for any comedy series, "Family Tree" is patchy from the start, and we have to admit the first ten minutes or so had us a bit worried. Chris O'Dowd leads the show as Tom Chadwick, who is still reeling from breaking up with his girlfriend six months ago, and isn't too eager to get back in the game ("A woman would just get in the way of my wallowing," he quips). His parents were divorced when he was nine, and he was sent to live with his mother in Ireland while his sister Bea (Nina Conti) stayed with his father (Michael McKean). Tom's been recently let go from C.L.A.I.M. -- a firm that investigates traffic accidents for insurance companies (ha) -- and so he's got some time on his hands.
During a visit to see his father, he's given a chest of assorted oddities left behind by his great-aunt Victoria -- though he doesn't remember her -- and upon uncovering a photo inside of his great-grandfather Harry, Tom begins a search to find out more about his family history. There's no real motivating factor beside curiosity, and perhaps some kind of loneliness as he's now single. And it's the simple driving narrative force for the show that lets Guest allow Tom to ping pong between his family, friends and the assorted quirky cast of folks who provide various clues to helping him learn more about history. And with the first four shows set in the U.K., the writer/director doesn't miss an opportunity to poke fun at the culture.
Tom's family remain slightly baffled as to why he's spending so much time on the subject, but they've got their own assorted little issues. Foremost is Bea, who is never without her puppet companion Monk (a puppet monkey), who does half the talking for her. Bea was traumatized as a young girl after witnessing a puffin masturbating, and a therapist gave her the puppet to help her communicate after weeks of refusing to speak. And she's never let it go, admitting it was difficult for her find a job that would allow her monkey companion. But she has a job at the bank, though she complains that Monk isn't so great at counting the money (leading to one of many of the show's great visual gags). Unfortunately, where "Family Tree" is so well calibrated elsewhere, Bea feels a touch too over the top (even if Conti's day job is as a ventriloquist), an extra serving of oddity that pitches the humor of the show a bit too far, a situation not improved by the fact that there is only so many ways you spin sister-with-a-puppet. That said, there is still a whole season to go, so perhaps Bea will go to some interesting places (and it's interesting to note she uses Monk to ruthlessly insult her stepmother).
Tom's father Keith on the other hand (played perfectly by McKean), is a big, soft and well-meaning retiree. He's perfectly happy sitting on the settee, watching his favorite U.K. comedies, in one of the show's best running gags. Guest creates various TV shows within "Family Tree" and wastes no opportunity to skewer the traditional laugh-track, punch-line driven format with gusto. While it could be viewed as Guest re-establishing himself as a comic voice after being out of the game for so long, it comes off less prideful, and more of a wry observation on the dreck that still gets made. And yet, Guest never pokes fun at Keith for liking this stuff; the joke is at the expense of the horrid kind of shows that perpetuate stale stereotypes and genre tropes. But Keith's unabashed love of his stale sitcoms also humanizes him to a great degree. (And it should be known that Tom is a fan of "The Plantagenets," a hilariously overwrought "Borgias"-esque show.)
But Tom gets his greatest sparring partner in his best friend Pete (Tom Bennett). He's a Zoological Cage Management Associate (meaning he literally shovels shit for a living), who is almost the polar opposite of Tom in every way. But they get on like gangbusters, and when the two of them get together in the second half of the show, that's when it truly takes off. Peter not only accompanies Tom on his fact-finding mission (where they run into Neville St. Aubrey, a wonderfully eccentric antiquities specialist, played pitch perfectly by Christopher Fairbank) but he sets up his single friend on a date...that does not go well. She may be "model pretty," but it isn't long before she shares with Tom that she believes dinosaurs are still on Earth, and O'Dowd's low key bafflement (the actor's decision to go subtle in most cases brings the show's biggest laughs) is great stuff.
By the end of the first episode, Tom has learned that his great-grandfather Harry might actually be Chinese, putting a great cap on the first episode. As we said, "The Box" is very much Guest setting up the pieces, but as we've looked into the crystal ball (okay, we've seen the first few episodes) now that board is established, the show opens up, and show itself to be exactly what fans of his work are expecting. There are so many throwaway gags and moments that to mention them here is to spoil the fun, but Guest and co-writer Jim Piddick never waste a moment. Filled with asides as funny as the main gags, a generous spirit and playful edge, "Family Tree" has planted some firm roots. [B]