Review: Family Tree 1×1 (HBO/BBC2)

Gentle British comedy from Christopher Guest

Family Tree

In the US: Sundays, 10.30pm, HBO
In the UK: Will air on BBC2 this year

Christopher Guest is a god, of course. One of the originators of Spinal Tap, he is the premier maker of the improvised ‘mockumentary’, with films like Best in Class that are cuttingly funny social observations. He is America’s Mike Leigh.

Except, of course, Guest is half-British, the son of a UN diplomat, and shared his childhood between London and New York. Which is why we shouldn’t be surprised that BBC2’s latest co-production with HBO – following on from the likes of Rome and Parade’s End – is set predominantly in Britain. Family Tree follows Chris O’Dowd’s (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids) attempts to trace various members of his family after his great aunt dies, leaving him a box of memorabilia. Along the way, he’s helped and hindered by his sister (Nina Conti, best known for her stand-up act, but also from Guest’s For Your Consideration), who still uses the therapy monkey she had when she was a child to say things that would otherwise be unsayable, and his dad (long-time Guest collaborator Michael McKean from Spinal Tap).

Again, largely improvised by the cast, it’s well observed and engrossing, flirting with British stereotypes while undermining them and having far more depth than a whole load of US shows I could name. But is it funny? Well…

Here’s a trailer:

Plot
Having recently lost his job and his girlfriend, 30-year-old Tom Chadwick has a rather unsure sense of his own identity. But when he inherits a mysterious box of belongings from a great aunt he never met, Tom starts investigating his lineage and uncovers a whole world of unusual stories and characters, acquiring a growing sense of who he and his real family are.

Written and created by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock, the new comedy series FAMILY TREE is a single-camera, documentary-style show in the manner of Guest’s acclaimed feature films (such as ‘Best in Show,’ ‘Waiting for Guffman’ and ‘A Mighty Wind’). Chris O’Dowd (‘Bridesmaids’) stars as Tom Chadwick in the HBO presentation, along with Tom Bennett and Nina Conti. The series also features appearances by Carrie Aizley, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Maria Blasucci, Matt Griesser, Christopher Guest, Don Lake, Michael McKean, Lisa Palfrey, Jim Piddock, Kevin Pollak, Amy Seimetz, Meera Syal, Ashley Walters and Fred Willard.

Is it any good?
It’ll make you smile. Sometimes it’ll make you smile because of a funny joke or a funny line; sometimes it’ll make you smile because of a knowing reference or satirical point. But will it make you laugh? Not really. Snort a bit, maybe. But laugh? Not so much.

Which is a shame because there’s obviously a lot of talent, here. As well as O’Dowd and McKean, there’s Christopher Fairbank from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet as a somewhat eccentric historian. Meera Syal appears in a faux 70s sitcom about Indian and Sikh immigrants that’s a flipside poke at Love Thy Neighbour. Coming in future episodes are Ed Begley Jr, Guest, Kevin Pollak, Fred Willard and many other luminaries from both sides of the Atlantic. There’s also nicely observed back stories for characters: O’Dowd is obviously Irish, Conti and McKean’s characters not, but rather than that be ignored, that’s put down to a divorce, with the young O’Dowd growing up in Ireland as a result.

It’s just this is a gentle comedy about gentle eccentrics and the mundanity of everyday life compared to the exciting back stories of ancestors. O’Dowd has done little except work in an accident claims company; Conti just says slightly mean things through her monkey; while McKean sits and watches television all day. Yet their ancestors have associated with royalty and travelled the world. Only by following these ancestors is O’Dowd able to break out of his dull existence.

To a certain extent, the humour probably depends on whether you either emphasise with or laugh at the eccentrics that appear on screen. And to a large extent, they’re not really people you can empathise with, more grotesques than recognisable types; and if you feel like laughing at them, then this show, which is more a celebration of eccentricity, probably isn’t going to be for you (and BTW, you’re kind of mean).

It would be good if there were more laugh out loud lines, but Family Tree is still a relatively enjoyable piece, with more intelligence and warmth in five minutes of its time than something like Vicious or The Neighbors has in their entire run. If you like character-based comedy, like trans-atlantic humour and/or like Chris O’Dowd or Christopher Guest, give this a try, at least.