Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 9, 2013)
From 1997’s Waiting for Guffman through 2006’s For Your Consideration, Christopher Guest put out a new movie every three years. Then 2009 arrived and we got no fresh Guest flick.
And 2012, too.
Guest finally returned to the land of the living with 2013’s TV series Family Tree. This DVD set provides all eight of Season One’s episodes. The plot synopses come from the DVD’s menus.
The Box: “Unemployed and unattached, Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd) is surprised when he’s bequeathed an old chest of curios by his great-aunt Victoria, although he and his sister Bea (Nina Conti) – with her hand-puppet Monk – can’t remember ever meeting her. He finds an old black-and-white photo in the chest that his father Keith (Michael McKean) believes is Tom’s great-grandfather Harry. With the help of Mr. Pfister (Jim Piddock), his avuncular neighbor, Tom tracks down Neville St. Aubrey (Christopher Fairbank), a strange expert in the field of antique photos who discovers intriguing and revealing information about Tom’s ancestor. Meanwhile, his friend Pete (Tom Bennett) tries to get Tom’s love life back on track by setting him up with a ‘model pretty’ date. He’s just not sure what kind of model.”
While I’d like to say “Box” opens the series with a bang, I can’t, as it’s a pretty lethargic launch. To some degree, one would expect that, as Guest emphasized low-key humor in his prior works, but I must admit that “Box” seems awfully understated even for him. It’s not a bad show, but it doesn’t do much to draw us in and look forward to more.
Treading the Boards: “When Mr. Pfister discovers an unforeseen aspect of Tom’s great-grandfather Harry’s life, it leads Tom and Pete to the south coast of England, where Harry died many years before. They meet Sybil (Freda Barratt), an impossibly old woman, who still lives next door to the house Harry lived in and remembers him from her childhood.”
“Boards” manages a few more laughs than “Box”, but the show still seems so subdued that it occasionally feels like it may disappear without a trace. So far, I think much of the problem comes from the bland nature of Tom and the underuse of O’Dowd; he’s a talented comedic actor but even though he’s in most of the scenes, he just doesn’t have much to do. Like “Box”, a few gentle chuckles emerge, but the show doesn’t make me all that eager to continue.
The Austerity Games: “Bea and Monk audition to perform at a children’s birthday, while Tom starts digging deeper into the life of his grandfather William, who he suspects might have competed in the 1948 ‘Austerity Games’.”
Three shows in, and I can’t decide if I like or hate Tom’s friend Pete. On one hand, he’s a broad character who feels like he’s out of a different series, but on the other, at least he adds some life to this relentlessly deadpan show.
Don’t get me wrong – I like deadpan and low-key humor. However, the gags here seem barely existent and without much to provoke mirth. I continue to hope that the show will improve but after three episodes, my doubts dominate.
Country Life: “Tom finally has an interview for a job. He also discovers that he has cousins in both Derbyshire and California, and makes a plan to visit both and learn more about the Derbyshire branch of the family tree.”
Is Tree supposed to be a character piece that focuses on one man’s attempts to find himself or is it a broad comedy with fart, castration and spooge jokes? As “Life” reminds us, it wants to be both, and the two sides integrate in an awkward manner.
That said, the comedic landscape remains so barren that – God help me – I’ve been forced to laugh at a woman pooping at the side of the road and covering it with dirt. I’ve officially hit rock bottom, and so has Tree.
Oh, and I’ve decided: I hate Pete.
Welcome to America: “Tom arrives in Los Angeles to stay with his American cousins, Al and Kitty Chadwick (Carrie Aizley), and to discover why his great-great-grandfather Charles left for England more than a hundred years ago.”
With a change of setting, Tree finally shows signs of life, largely due to the arrival of the acting cavalry: Guest, Begley and Fred Willard. Staples of Guest’s movies, they add real life to the proceedings and Tree finally starts to feel like Guest’s work, as it provides the clever quirkiness that’s his trademark. “America” doesn’t remove the stink of the boring first four shows, but at least it gives me hope that the rest of the season will entertain.
Civil War: “Tom’s cousin Rick (Matt Griesser), an American Civil War enthusiast, helps Tom find out more about his great-great-grandfather Charles’ mysterious activities as a soldier in the war.”
Tree continues its upswing with the likable “War”. It mixes its direct plot elements with extraneous – but amusing – bits to create a pretty likable program. S1 continues to look up.
Indians: “Tom rents a classic convertible car and meets Ally for lunch, where they get to know each other a little better. Bea and Pete arrive to share Tom’s last two weeks in America.”
Pete, Bea, and Monk: the Tree Axis of Evil. Is it a coincidence that the series prospered with them nearly non-existent for two shows? Is it a coincidence that S1 regresses when they come back to the fore? No and no. “Indians” still comes with some decent moments, but it provides a step back after two straight good shows, and the Axis becomes the main reason why.
Cowboys: “On their last day in California, Bea, Monk and Pete hit the beach, while Tom, accompanied by Ally, meets Tom’s distant cousin Melvin Schmelff (Bob Balaban), whose grandfather was Tumbleweed Tim, a famous silent-movie cowboy star.”
S1 ends with another iffy effort, with the weakest elements due to the old Axis of Evil; I’m not saying an idiotic search for Monk – who gets lost on the Venice boardwalk - is the season’s nadir, but if not, it’s close. A few funny moments redeem “Cowboys” slightly – like Al’s conspiracy theories – but I still think this is a spotty episode that finishes a lackluster season.
Will S2 improve on this model? Hopefully, but as long as Bea, Monk and Pete form an important part of the series, that’ll be tough; it’s difficult to pull off a satisfying series when three of your main characters are so relentlessly annoying and unamusing. I have enough faith in Chris Guest to hope for the best, but I must admit S1 disappointed me.