Over the last few decades, the mockumentary format has become almost totally synonymous with Christopher Guest, the writer/director (and often actor) best known for films such as This Is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. Each film—to varying success—mined the documentary format for laughs, setting up its eccentric characters as the butts of the joke ... or the only ones in on it.
It’s no surprise, then, that Guest would eventually seek to bring his brand of comedy to television, which has had significant success with the format: numerous comedies, from Modern Family to The Office and Parks and Recreation, have embraced the single-camera mockumentary format, allowing for characters to engage in “talking heads” segments in which they speak directly to the audience via an unseen film crew. It’s through this technique that characters are able to comment on what the viewer has just seen or will see, an act that creates an instantaneous and perpetual sense of intimacy. That rapport, in essence, sets up the audience as an additional, unseen character in the room, removing the narrative distance between the action and the viewer at home.
With Guest and Jim Piddock’s semi-improvised genealogy comedy Family Tree, which begins its eight-episode season this Sunday evening on HBO, the television mockumentary format may be reaching oversaturation. But for Family Tree, the result is nonetheless appealing, what I like to call “tea-cozy television”—nothing too precious or too taxing, but comforting to watch all the same.
The show, which features a slew of familiar faces from Guest’s previous film work, revolves around sad sack Tom Chadwick (Bridesmaids’ Chris O’Dowd), who has, in rapid succession, lost both his job and his girlfriend. Cuckolded and on the dole, Tom flounders until he receives an unusual bequest from his Great-Aunt Victoria: a mysterious box containing ephemera from his family’s complicated history. Rather than see the box as full of rubbish, he chooses to see it as an invitation to a quest: to reconstruct his family tree and come to terms with the Chadwick clan’s rather checkered past (and, one imagines, his own in the process).
Each item that Tom unearths from the box unlocks a new chapter in the Chadwicks’ history, providing Family Tree with a flexible episodic structure. One week, Tom is at a seaside theater researching his great-grandfather’s life on stage; in another, he’s at a boxing ring or out in the Derbyshire countryside to discover why his grandfather and his great-uncle fell out decades earlier. Along the way, Tom encounters family members, historians, and the sort of peculiar people one typically meets in Christopher Guest films. A pantomime horse plays a role, as does a sardonic hand puppet.
O’Dowd brings an innate, rounded sweetness to his performance as Tom Chadwick, managing to be charmingly sympathetic in his misery rather than just pathetic or as blustery as his characters in Girls or Friends With Kids. Instead Tom hews far more closely to O’Dowd’s perpetually beleaguered character, Roy, in the four-season British sitcom The IT Crowd. In spite of—or perhaps because of—his very sadness, it’s easy to love Tom, a sort of grown-up Lost Boy, and his character grounds the often out-there absurdity of the plot with an authentic and tender sense of humanity.
Which is necessary because the characters he encounters on his journey are often way too kooky—and, well, Guest-ian—to latch onto. The first four episodes of Family Tree, which were distributed to the press ahead of broadcast, are set in Britain; the final four installments will be set in America. The audience is given a glimpse of frequent Christopher Guest collaborator Ed Begley Jr. in the fourth episode, though his character—as well as those played by Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, and Guest himself—won’t really be visible until Tom leaves for the States in the back half of the season. The structure gives the show a sort of cantilevered feel, a sense that the early episodes are a rigid foundation that projects outward, taking Tom (and the plot) outside the familiar environs established in these first chapters.
Having said that, there is a nice strain of humor to the proceedings, particularly in scenes between Tom and his close-knit family. His gruff father, Keith, played to perfection by Michael McKean, is recently remarried to Polish oddball Luba (Lisa Palfrey) and spends much of his time watching and rewatching classic British television shows on DVD. These shows-within-a-show—an Anglo-Indian sitcom, a cop comedy, and even The Tudors lampoon The Plantagenets—pop up frequently throughout Family Tree, and all are parodies of preexisting shows and tropes, lending the show a rich theatrical history of its own.
Elsewhere, Tom’s sister, Bea (Nina Conti), is a few knives short of a full dinner service; she walks around wearing a monkey hand puppet called Monk, an outgrowth of her childhood therapy that has clung to her in adulthood. The despondent Monk, who is rather reminiscent of the symbiotic relationship between GOB and Franklin on Arrested Development, frequently says horrible or depressing things that Bea’s own filter would never permit her to utter. (Conti, a gifted British comedian and ventriloquist, is already well known for her work with her sidekick Monk in the U.K.; the duo previously appeared in Guest’s 2006 film For Your Consideration.)
Tom, meanwhile, spends his time at the corner antiques store owned by kindly Mr. Pfister (co-creator Jim Piddock) and with his best mate, Pete Stupples (Tom Bennett), a sort of lad’s lad who wanders aimlessly in a vest, pausing only to issue ridiculous off-topic comments. Stupples plays Pete as an absurdly obtuse man-child who reads as David Brent without the mean streak. While many of his lines almost parrot Ricky Gervais’s creation, Pete has a level of sweetness to him that is at odds with the darkness of The Office’s David Brent. If David is a yapping terrier, Pete is an addled golden retriever. Much of Family Tree’s breezy pleasantness comes from the dynamic between O’Dowd’s Tom and Bennett’s Pete. The two have been friends since early childhood, including a period of geographical distance, courtesy of Tom’s parents’ divorce, which saw Tom and his mum moving to Ireland while Bea and Keith remained in England.
Rather than serve as a sort of unnecessary logical pretzel, this fact explains away O’Dowd’s Irish accent and quickly establishes Tom’s sense of isolation, keenly felt even among his close family. Tom’s emotional unmooring serves as a driving force behind his mission to understand his family history and, really, to understand himself.
There’s a sense within Family Tree that the key to unlocking one’s identity is to take a deep dive into the past, no matter how convoluted or confusing the results may be. And, ultimately, half the fun in watching the charmingly twee Family Tree is to see how many branches Tom is willing to climb to get his answers and just how many nuts he discovers up there.