Last week, HBO and Christopher Guest debuted Guest’s new television show/mockumentary about a man, Tom Chadwick, searching for the history of his family. Along with Tom, we met his sister Bea (and her puppet, Monkey, who lives on her right hand and helps her express herself), their father Keith, and Tom’s best friend Pete Stupples. Other fun people included Mr. Glenn Pfister, owner of Mr. Pfister’s Bits and Bobs; Neville St. Aubrey, a specialist in 19th- and 20th-century photographs; and Ellie, a woman who, while on a date with Tom, we find out believes you can go back to man living with dinosaurs in your genealogy (because they only died 10 years ago!). The episode concluded with Mr. St. Aubrey telling Tom that his great-grandfather was not, in fact, an army general or a Royal Family member: Harry Chadwick was an Asian man, which completely makes sense because Tom and his family are not at all Asian, but Caucasian.
As a general feel, “Treading the Boards” was much more somber than last week’s. Harry is more of a tragic figure than what I at least imagined; he died fairly young of a broken heart. Tom must be seeing a great deal of himself in Harry, and, if anyone doubted that, the final scene of the episode points it out like a bright pink highlighter on a white page. The course that Harry’s life took is not a very happy one, though, and that, to me, makes this story more real and accessible. Seeing Guest take this turn is very interesting and somewhat unexpected. Perhaps “Family Tree” will be meatier than his mockumentaries and try to tackle more serious issues. There are many parts of “Treading the Boards” that were hilarious, though, so don’t turn away yet.
If I had to rate this week’s episode, on a scale of 1 being horrible and 5 being the funniest, best thing ever, I’d go with a 3. Pretty good, but not as funny because in some ways it was a downer, but in others, I couldn’t help but laugh and smile. But even when I did laugh, it felt almost wrong because of where things were funny. Still, it’s a pretty good show, and, for a second episode, a darn good one.
Now that the review is over, onto the recap!
“Treading the Boards,” episode 2, begins with a minute or so of Tom and Keith watching a British police comedy. Before Keith can begin another episode of “One Moment Please,” though, Tom tells Keith that the man in the photograph, the mysterious Harry Chadwick, is not a military man or a Chadwick, but Chinese. Keith launches into a couple jokes about the Chinese and Tom is still uncomfortable with the family tree revelation. They both decide that Chinese can’t skip a generation and that their simply cannot be a Chinese ancestor so recently in the family tree. Tom asks, “You think there’s any chance the Chinese gene can skip a generation? You know, like, baldness or blue eyes?” Keith answers that, no, “Chinesity” simply cannot. The best line out of the father-son scene comes during Keith’s “interview” moment. He says, brilliantly, “Genealogy is like any other ‘-ology.’ Best left to the scientists.” Kudos to Keith for that bit of awesomeness.
Tom’s ex-girlfriend, Sarah (who I did not mention last week because I didn’t think she’d be brought up again), is mentioned by Keith. Since their recent breakup, Tom has a lot of time on his hands. Perhaps this is why he’s so interested in the family history now, Keith wonders, because Tom’s newfound hobby is perplexing. Last week, Pete mentioned that he hadn’t like Sarah from the start. Now everyone is caught up on the Sarah storyline. So…
Like last week, Mr. Pfister is a riot in the same sense that the Serengeti Desert is dry. When Tom brings up the idea of the Chinese gene skipping a few generations, Mr. Pfister says with a perfectly straight face: “You don’t always see your ancestors characteristics showing up in the present, in you. My great-grandfather was German, but you don’t see me annexing countries.” Boom! I think that’s my favorite line of the night. Wait a minute and I’ll change my mind.
There’s some interesting writing on the back of the photograph and Mr. Pfister and Tom turn their attention to it. The words are barely legible (I couldn’t see more than a smudge), but Tom believes they say, “To the best Nancy Doo in Love.” Of course, he’s wrong. Mr. Pfister corrects him. I’ll just give you the direct quote instead of explaining: “To the best Nanki-Poo! Nanki-Poo is a character in ‘The Mikado’. So this isn’t a Chinese person. It’s a Japanese person. Well, it’s not a Japanese person. It’s an English person playing a Japanese person. He’s an actor.” What??? Great-Grandpa Harry isn’t isn’t a Chinese or Japanese photographer? Nope, ladies and gents; he’s an English ex-photographer-turned-actor. Whew! What a genealogical relief. I was beginning to wonder about that “Chinesity” gene. Apparently, “The Mikado” is a comical opera by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Next we see Pete lining up a collection of dirty named beer bottles. He informs Tom that he’s set him up on another blind date, seeing as dinosaur girl Ellie didn’t turn out to be the love of Tom’s life. As you can imagine, Tom is ecstatic (please note my extreme sarcasm). Before Tom can reject this new girl (Tracey) too much, we learn that Harry is from Hove. What does that mean? ROAD TRIP!!
Tom and Pete arrive in Hove and Tom quickly finds his great-grandfather’s house.
As he walks up to the door, he muses that Harry would have tied up his horse here, opened this gate, and gone up these steps. Such a tangible connection to family is comforting, at least to me, so those few seconds were pretty powerful and meaningful. They soon run into a neighbor across the way whose very elderly mother likely new the Chadwicks. She invites them over.
The nice Neighbor Lady (sorry – she isn’t given a name) asks her mother if she remembers Harry. While the old lady tries to remember (again, not given a name), Tom inquires about the device around her neck. Nice Neighbor says, “I invented that. I’m rather proud of it. So when she exhales I can see if she’s still breathing.” Apparently, said device is a mirror linked with wire around the old lady’s neck. Let’s just hope no one comes around with defogging spray. When the old lady does remember, she opines that she saw Harry acting with David Garrick. Nice Neighbor Lady corrects her and says that David Garrick acted some time in the 1700s. “Sometimes she’s as bright as a tack,” Nice Neighbor Lady says, “others she’s completely doolally.”
After learning all they can from Nice Neighbor Lady and her mother, Tom and Pete head to Regent’s Theatre where Harry acted. We begin with a very well-written and spoken voiceover by Rex the Regent’s Theatre Guru of how theatre, in a way, is like church. The stage is the altar, the seats pews, the theatre a temple/mosque/church, and this implies that the art of acting is a religion all of its own. I don’t think Guest is being cynical here, but actually quite genuine about what the stage means and how an actor/actress must feel at times, and what hopefully the audience feels as well. Tom talks to Rex, and – guess what! – Great-grandpa Harry acted opposite Sir Laurence Olivier. Before you begin to clap and say that he deserves a few Tonys, Harry was one of several Greek soldiers (read that as part of the chorus/extras – who are still very important!) in “The Bells of Troy;” Olivier was the lead, Ancaeus. The chances they actually shared the stage? Slim to none. Don’t worry, though: Harry was better known for his light entertainment and comedic work.
Rex shows Tom and Pete (after Pete nearly wrecks a set up on the stage) to a photo wall and points to a black-and-white photograph of several actors in costume. Which is one is Great-Grandpa Harry?
Yep, that’s the one! He’s the rear-end of a pantomime horse. His partner, Sid Balducci, was the front part of the horse (the “gob ender”) for about 20 years. Oh, the jokes I could make here, but I shall refrain and let Guest do the work for me. Rex finds Mitch, another worker for the theatre, to help explain Harry’s history. We’re treated to a centenary DVD featuring some “best of” acts from Regent’s Theatre. On there is Harry, but not before dog acts, Little Tich a stilt dancer, Hadji Ali the fire regurgitator, three women throwing a handkerchief around, and Wilson and Keppel without their dance partner Betty. At long last, Sid and Harry as the Pantomime Horse appear and begin to dance. Mitch introduces them as “Chadwick and Balducci: note the billing order,” which confuses poor Pete who believes it is at first alphabetical, then is enlightened and says, “Oh, it’s B before C.” Pete sure is the brightest bulb in the box, huh? (Again, note my sarcasm.) The signature curtain call move for Chadwick and Balducci? Harry walking backward and waving the horse’s tail. Man, I wish I could throw in a gif of all this for you, but I can’t. Don’t know how to make them. So just take my word for it: hi-la-ri-ous in that crazy, off the cuff, dry way that Guest has. When I think about this being Tom’s great-grandfather, I don’t know whether to laugh at him or cry for him (not that having an ancestor who did this is a bad thing!). Tom tries to learn about Harry from Mitch and Rex and asks, “Would you say that out of all the rear-enders, he would have been one of the better ones?” Mitch politely but with fake confidence assures Tom that he was the very best.
Rex decides to show Tom and Pete Harry’s old horse costume. Mitch takes this opportunity to tell them about the annual Pantomime Horse Race, run for nearly one hundred years. And yes, folks, we’ll be hearing more about that history coming up.
While still in the costume room, Tom asks if Harry and Sid were as close offstage as on. A hush falls over Rex and Mitch: apparently the act of Chadwick and Balducci broke up, according to Mitch, after Sid ate some strong curry before the show and… Well, just remember who was the front of the horse and who unfortunately was the back. Tom decides to buy the costume from Regent’s in exchange for a theatre donation. Before he leaves, though, Rex tells him that Elsie, Harry’s wife, had an affair with Sid. After Harry’s death, Elsie and Sid married.
Tom, in an interview-type shot, talks about how the news that Elsie cheated on and then left Harry for Sid was surprising but made him feel connected to Harry. Looks like there’s more to the Sarah breakup than we originally thought. In Harry’s memory, Tom and Pete have decided to compete in the Pantomime Horse Race/Costume Horse Derby! “And we’re going to take it seriously,” Tom says. “You know, we want to win, because we are stepping – running the footsteps – hoof steps of a legend.”
And then there’s Bea, sitting on a bench with Monkey. She thinks that Tom and Pete look vulnerable by doing something outlandish like running around in a horse costume in the middle of the park. Apparently she doesn’t realize she has a monkey puppet on her right hand that communicates most of her inner dialogue and conscious thought and is sitting on a park bench. Again, folks, sarcasm. Monkey has been trying to convince Bea that it’s time for them to “tread the boards” like their great-grandfather. At this moment, I realize that “treading the boards” means acting. Being an American, y’all, it doesn’t always make sense. I’m so glad that it took a crazy woman and a monkey puppet to make that click for me.
Finally, we’re up to one of my favorite reoccurring pieces of the show: the Tom’s Horrible Date portion of our show. Meet Tracey, a youngish woman interested in (read that as obsessed) with bones. She really likes bones. Digging them up, finding them in roadkill (free bones!), getting them out of a bucket of chicken (always go with the leg over the breast in that case so that you get the free bone). “Some girls are into shoes. Or – ‘I really like scarves,’ isn’t it? And I just – I’m just really into bones,” Tracey tells us. And now she’s talking about how bones are sensual. Forgive me for not tackling this one, so we’ll just move on. Aside from vertebrae, Tracey’s favorite bone is the clavicle. She has quite pronounced clavicles. So pronounced that she sprinkles some salt on them, and then has Tom add more salt. Suddenly Ellie from last week doesn’t sound so bad! Dating Tip: When a girl asks you to “salt her clavicle,” just say no. Poor Tom looks like he’s about to go crazy, and I give him big points for not killing Tracey.
And now, my dear readers, for the moment you’ve been waiting for: the Pantomime Horse Race/Costume Horse Derby!
It’s been been going for nearly 100 years, we’re told by Nigel Robson-Jones, the President of the Annual Costume Horse Derby, and began in 1919 after World War I ended. After a while, horses became scarce and other animals were allowed to enter, such as cows, pigs, and the panda in today’s race. President Robson-Jones drew the line at a camel, though. In spite of it all, and the fact that the panda and giraffe racing are both single people standing upright, Tom and Harry are feeling confident and strong. It’s not enough to win, though. They come in last place. Pete has a brilliant line that sums up the race: “Two legs – a biped versus four peds. How is that fair?” It’s not fair, Pete, but better luck next year.
The episode’s last scene is of Tom standing before Harry’s grave. “He was only 55 when he died. Sad. He died so young with a broken heart and lungs full of the flatulence of his betrayer,” Tom says. “It wasn’t your fault, Harry. You and me. What a pair of cuckolds.” Next to Harry are his parents, Tom’s great-great-grandparents Charles and Rebecca Chadwick, who will likely become his next focus as he journeys back into his family tree more. Oddly, though, their tombstones have no birth dates. I bet that’s where Tom will begin his search. But not before one more pessimistic thought: “The way things are going, we’ll find out that Rebecca was probably stripper.”
Friendly reminder: “Family Tree” will not air next Sunday, May 26th; instead, HBO’s new movie “Behind the Candelabra” will be on. Tune in for it, and I’ll see you back here in two weeks, friends!