With the premiere of “Family Tree” Sunday night, acclaimed director Christopher Guest (“Best in Show,” “This Is Spinal Tap”) and HBO are hoping to begin a long and happy union. As is typical of Guest and his movies, “Family Ties” is a mockumentary: an unemployed and single thirty-year-old man embarks on a quest to learn more about his family history after receiving an old chest from his deceased grandmother.
For those of you not too familiar with Christopher Guest, he’s the mastermind behind “Best in Show,” “Waiting for Guffman,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” and many others. As to Guest’s style, he usually creates a background for each character and an outline for the scene, then lets the actor take over from there, which usually means improvising lines. What this means is that, in responding to each other, actors can come up with some entertaining and insane material.
“Family Tree” is set up like a British comedy, and episode one takes places in and around London. That instantly means that the humor will be dry like a white wine and somewhat irreverent. What can we say? It’s Christopher Guest and British comedy! Guest didn’t develop a cult-like following by running “Seinfeld”-esque jokes.
So, to begin our story! Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd) and his sister Bea (Nina Conti) are driving to their father Keith’s house for lunch. From the conversation, it’s easy to tell that Tom will be the straight man for most of the jokes in this mockumentary. He’s a pretty normal guy who lives in London; he recently lost his job at the Central London Accident Investigation Management (CLAIM). He tells us, “My job was to assess each specific accident and to attribute responsibility to one of the parties, which was pretty sexy.” Sexy or not, it looks like he got to play with toy cars all day. Now that is a job I want!
So, back to his conversation with Bea: they both wonder why their father has asked them to lunch. Tom idly jests that their father will randomly say something like “I killed her. She’s in the back room.” You know, typical things you expect your father to say to you at a family lunch. After asking Tom about his dating life and learning that Tom is still in the mood for a good wallowing from his last breakup, Bea asks Tom to turn around and check on Monk. I know, you’re probably like me and thinking, Does she have a dog in the car? A child? Something like that? But oh no. This is a Christopher Guest show, people! So what is Monk? We see Tom turn around and check the safety strap on…. a monkey puppet in a pink carseat. Apparently Bea and this monkey are pretty attached, as we learn more about later.
Upon arriving at their father’s, Tom, Bea, and Monk, placed on Bea’s right hand and who will be joining them throughout dinner, are greeted by a woman with brown hair who speaks in an accent that is fairly un-understandable. This is Keith’s wife, whose name I don’t think is given. She invites everyone inside. Keith is watching a sitcom starring an Indian husband and wife that have pretty generic comedy jokes, such as the wife looking fat in a sari and the neighborhood being ruined by some new people.
Papa Keith (Michael McKean) is an interesting fellow. He served twenty years in the British Army and also as a yeoman warder, then took early retirement. His new goal in life? To be an inventor. So far, he’s developed prototype shoe trees that cool your shoes – via a fan – before putting them on, and a shoe tree that warms your shoe before putting it on.
We learn that Tom loves to travel because he moved back to Ireland with his mother when Keith and she divorced, and about his job at CLAIM. Tom’s new job prospect? A position doing “risk assessment for a bouncy castle company.” Thumbs up, Tom. Also, we learn that Keith’s wife is a pretty bad cook, unless you like roast meat to have a syrupy taste. Yum… pot roast syrup.
Finally, we get the story of Monkey and Bea. Monk expresses all of Bea’s internal thoughts, such as saying aloud that dinner is disgusting. So why does Bea feel the need to carry a monkey puppet around? Well…
Bea: I was on holiday in Wales…
Monk: Which is bad enough in itself.
Bea: And I came across a puffin. And this puffin was…
Bea: …he was touching himself in an inappropriate way…
Monk: Looking directly at her.
Bea: And I found it…I took it as a personal affront.
Monk: She took it very hard.
Bea: I was just very young, you know, I didn’t know how to process that sort of thing emotionally. So it was suggested that I went to a child therapist.
Monk: She hadn’t spoken in weeks.
Bea: And this therapist told me that I might be able to let out my inner voice with the use of a hand puppet.
Monk: So the rest is history.
The hardest challenge of this therapeutic puppet? Bringing him to work. Bea currently works at a bank and brings Monkey two days a week. He can’t really count out the money which is a big problem when you work at a place that counts out money.
Now, dear readers, back to lunch and that yummy syrupy roast. While eating, Keith tells his children that his aunt Victoria has passed away and left them “a little something.” Bea inherits some foul-ish clothing while Tom gets a box full of odds and ends, such as a pin cushion.
Back at Tom’s apartment, he begins to go through the box. Inside is a picture that puzzles Tom, and he calls Keith to learn more. “He’s a stout looking man,” Tom says, “and he’s got some interesting facial hair going on and he’s in full military garb.” Keith, who has no idea who this man is, guesses that it’s “Great-granddad Harry, some sort of military hero.”
After their conversation, Tom sums up the photo with this fantastic phrase: “General Harry Chadwick. Leader of Men. Grower of Beard.”
In his search to find out who this mystery bearded man is, Tom visits Mr. Glenn Pfister (Jim Piddock), called simply Mr. P., who runs the antique shop Mr. Pfister’s Bits and Bobs. After reaffirming some general information and trying to find a family resemblance between Tom and Great-Granddad Harry, Mr. P. recommends he visit Neville St. Aubrey, who specializes in 19th and 20th century photography.
Before we can learn more about the mystery picture and Neville St. Aubrey, though, we meet Pete Stupples (Tom Bennett), Tom’s best mate. They met in primary school when Tom wet his pants. All the kids and teachers made fun of Tom except for Pete, who also had a pants wetting issue.
At 16, Pete started a Saturday job at the zoo and is now a “zoological cage management associate.” And just what does that mean? “I shovel shit!” Pete says very enthusiastically. Hey, you gotta respect a man that loves his job. What keeps their friendship going? Three things: booze, birds, and the Spurs football team (soccer, to us Americans). And what good mate like Pete wouldn’t want to tell us viewers that he gets more attention from the ladies than Tom? He then explains to us, again, that Tom is in a rough patch when it comes to dating. Uh oh. Looks like Pete is going to be playing Cupid.
So Pete has a coworker named Natalie who dresses up like a ring-tail lemur, and Natalie has a friend named Ellie. Just what does Ellie look like, you ask?
Pete: Anyway, she’s got a mate, Ellie.
Tom: No, no.
Pete: And she’s fit and we’re setting you up.
Pete: Trust me, she’s model pretty.
Tom: What kind of model? ‘Cause the last time you did this, she was a model for garden furniture.
Pete: No, no. She’s cat – not supermodel, catalogue-model fit.
Tom: Like in a magazine.
Pete: Like in a free-leaflet-through-the-door-model fit.
Tom: She’s a junk mail model?
Sounds like a winner to me!
Tom and Pete go visit Mr. Neville St. Aubrey and find an interesting photography collection on his wall. For anyone who thinks that you need Photoshop to dummy up a picture, you really need to learn about basic black and white photography. You can come up with some crazy stuff. Anyway, Mr. St. Aubrey, whom Mr. P. calls “madder than a box of frogs,” proceeds to examine the mystery picture and says the man was a full field marshal. Mr. St. Aubrey turns over the picture and we learn it’s from Grayson Studios in 1902. When he looks into his super humongous reference book, though, Mr. St. Aubrey can’t find the name “Chadwick” listed. He promises to look into the photo more for Tom. As Tom and Pete walk back outside, Tom insists that he always felt he had a military air about himself, which Pete immediately dashes by reminiscing a time when, after a Spurs game, Tom was chased down the road by eight-year-olds. Pete then gets a text message and Tom’s date with Ellie is set.
We see Tom and Ellie having dinner together.
Very intelligently, she asks Tom how far back he plans on going with his family record, and before Tom can give a response, she wants to know if he goes back to dinosaurs. Because, you know, humans and dinosaurs totally got along together and all that. Oh, wait, Ellie says they did live together and it was only ten years ago that they stopped. The next few lines are just golden. I don’t know what’s funnier, Ellie’s attempts at having a cognitive thought or Tom’s ability not to look at her and ask if she left her brain at home:
Tom: Dinosaurs still exist?
Ellie: Yeah. I know some people still think they don’t exist, right?
Tom: Some people don’t think – ?
Ellie: Some people don’t.
Ellie: But most people do, I think. Because, I mean, obviously, they do, because birds are a type of dinosaur, so… And you know they still exist in Africa because there’s been loads of sightings of dinosaurs in Africa. They’re, like, big birds.
At this point in the date, I would probably have killed myself with a spoon, so kudos to Tom for not going crazy.
Next, we seem Tom taping a photo of Great-Granddad Harry to his wall. He throws a glove across his head to try and replicate the military helmet, but no luck. Mr. St. Aubrey calls and has made a discovery about Tom’s heritage. They agree to meet. The big discovery? The man in the photograph was Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge. Tom is thinking, Hey! Royal Bloodline right here! But no. Harry Chadwick took the photograph, which was why Great Aunt Victoria kept it. But hey, at least we know that Harry Chadwick worked as a photographer at Grayson’s! And even better, Mr. St. Aubrey has a photograph of Harry Chadwick.
Oops, wrong photo.
See? A Chinese man, which totally explains the name Harry Chadwick and why no one in the family looks Chinese. The episode ends with a very confused Tom ordering carrot cake.
Again, Guest has a great chance for this becoming a hit. This show is about more than just comedy and awkward situations; it’s about the search for something similar in us all, a connected spirit that tells us who we are and where we came from. It’s about family, and all the dysfunctional people in it. It’s about friendship, and the lengths we go to for each other. It’s the funny, relatable story of a man looking for himself by finding out about his past. And, on achieving that, I believe Mr. Guest is well on his way.
The previews for the upcoming weeks show Keith and Mr. Pfister’s reactions to the Chadwick genealogy, Bea and Monk at a park where grown men are racing around in horse costumes, and Pete getting ready to set Tom up on a date. Another trailer shows Tom going to California, running into several memorable characters from “Best in Show,” and Bea and Monkey riding on a donkey in the desert. Cast members for the upcoming episodes include Guest favorites Fred Willard and Ed Begley, Jr., as well as many others not yet listed; I’m sure Christopher Guest will be appearing at some point, too.
“Family Tree” appears Sunday nights on HBO at 10:30pm EST.
But don’t take our word for it. Here’s what the critics are saying: