Tom Chadwick is an affable British-Irish chap stuck in a bad patch. He’s reeling from a breakup, and he’s just been made redundant at his job. His longtime best friend keeps setting him up on disastrous dates with dim-witted women. Tom needs to Move Along, Please!, to borrow the title from his father’s favorite sitcom. Into Tom’s stultifying life drops a box of heirlooms bequeathed by a dead great-aunt. He begins investigating the knotty roots of his screwy family history, which takes this hangdog Homer on an absurdly funny odyssey into oddball quarters and pastimes (pantomime horse racing, anyone?). Tom, a product of his reality TV/self-documenting generation, allows a film crew to record his journey of discovery. Look, everybody! I’m interesting!
Which means HBO’s Family Tree is a mockumentary, a format that has given us several greats (The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family), but like Tom, it could use some reinvention. The genre’s once unique elements – the vérité aesthetic, the talk-to-the-camera confessional – have become clichés and precipitated others: the camera-aware Jim Halpert raised eyebrow, the hammy Phil Dunphy joke fail. Tree has no solution for the problem of stale genre conventions other than to play them lightly. When they show up, they feel like intrusive storytelling crutches – mechanisms designed to generate authenticity, intimacy, and narrative clarity.
Fortunately, Family Tree doesn’t need its mockumentary monkey business to be affecting; it’s stuffed with poignant, diverting treasure. The show comes from a pair of British-Americans, mockumentary pioneer Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman) and actor/writer Jim Piddock (For Your Consideration). Creating his first TV series, Guest stretches without breaking form, although you suspect he might want to. Instead of skewering a specific subculture, Guest aims broadly, constructing a rich simulacrum of British society. Tom, played by Bridesmaids’ adorkable Chris O’Dowd, grounds the whimsy with wry self-deprecation. His character marks another change of pace for Guest, by focusing the story on a central Everyman hero instead of an ensemble of eccentrics. Not that Tree is lacking in those.
Stealing every scene is British actress/ventriloquist Nina Conti, who plays Tom’s sister Bea, a shy woman who uses a puppet named Monkey to express her true self passive-aggressively. In the standout third episode, Bea and Monkey – a contrivance for engaging others – try stand-up comedy and alienate the audience by mocking them. As Monkey convinces her their act was a disaster, Bea wonders if Tom is on to something in his quest for richer meaning. Moments like these leave you wondering if Family Tree is not just a quirky epic about stuck-in-the-past souls fumbling to find new identities, but a metaphorical reflection on the function and limits of comedy itself by a great artist rethinking how he connects with an audience. Here’s hoping these journeys arrive at meaningful – and funny – destinations. B
Family Tree premieres Sunday, May 12, at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.
Jeff on Twitter: @EWDocJensen