The semi-improvised mockumentary films of Christopher Guest have been very influential on a lot of television comedy, so it’s good to see Guest get his own show in which to explore the genre he helped create. Family Tree, a BBC-HBO co-production which has already aired in the US to decent reviews, is similar in both style and humour to Guest’s previous films.
Episode one opened with a shot of Parliament – so HBO viewers know where they are – before entering the car of siblings Tom and Bea. Tom is played by The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd, while Bea is played by Nina Conti, the much praised ventriloquist. I’ve never really liked Conti that much but some of her work can be hilarious in it’s originality.
The opening scene between Tom and Bea reminded me less of Guest’s mockumentaries and more of the naturalist improvising of films like Cold Weather, and I was looking forward to seeing this original style on TV. The show didn’t really live up to that opening though, and became a little broader in its approach.
Bea has a monkey dummy as a sidekick, a quirk she developed as a child after being psychologically traumatised by a puffin who looked directly at her while touching itself. The episode had a few funny little bits like this – a man who assembles landmarks in bottles, or Tom’s father inventing a shoe cooler that had echoes of Spinal Tap’s similarly awful salesman – but the episode wasn’t particularly funny. There was a lot of dead air where nothing interesting or particularly funny was happening.
The plot had Tom tracing his family history, after being given a box of old family trinkets from a deceased aunt. Tom was joined on his search by his friend, played by Tom Bennett, who really needs to stop doing a Ricky Gervais impression in every show he’s in. His facial expressions, mannerism, tone and comic delivery are very, very similar to Gervais’ performances.
The history plot aside, there was some stuff about Tom’s romantic life and a pretty funny date he went on, and the episode concluded with the reveal that his great-grandfather was Chinese, a quite weak joke rescued by O’Dowd’s facial expression upon seeing the photo.
It’s okay then, Family Tree. I think it might be an enjoyable watch, funny at times and probably with a few stand-out moments each episode. But so far it’s lacking in any engaging plot, and is sparse on funny moments, with some weak improvisation. Hopefully, given the talent of the people involved, it’ll get better as the show progresses.
- ‘What kind of march?’ ‘Paedophiles.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Like, anti, anti-paedophiles.’
- ‘Dinosaurs still exist?’ ‘They still exist in Africa because there has been loads of sightings of dinosaurs in Africa. They are like big birds.’
- ‘It’s not a fish, certainly… it’s like you said, it’s probably a bloody dinosaur.’