Getting To The Root Of The Problem With ‘Family Tree’


Before I get to my thoughts on HBO’s newest pilot, Family Tree, I thought I’d give a little back-story on me: I fucking love Christopher Guest and I think ‘Waiting For Guffman’ is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. In fact, if you snapped your fingers at me right this second and said “Go, fatboy!” I could probably act out the entire film before your very eyes. At least up to the “Penny For Your Thoughts” segment. Phew, ok, so that’s cleared up. Anyway, last night I watched the Pilot episode of Family Tree on HBO. The only concrete pieces of information I had on this show were that it was created by Christopher Guest (check), it stars Chris O’Dowd (check) and it’s an HBO Comedy Series that doesn’t chronicle the lives of Manhattan Debutantes with buckets of money and lifestyles predicated on garnering male validation via sex (double check!). I had heard previously that the premier opened to “soft numbers” in the ratings, but I pay no attention to something as abstract as statistics in viewership! Having now watched the first episode, I will say that this show is not exactly off to a rip-roaring start.

The first scene of the show takes place in a car where Chris O’Dowd and some other British chick are having what I assume to be a conversation although I understood/could intelligibly hear about every 9th word so Jury’s still out on what was actually going down. The thrust of the scene was that Chris O’Dowd’s character had been summoned to see his father for some yet unknown reason and that’s where he and this chick were going. Also, there was a monkey doll in the back seat which to me read like: “Insert quirky element here”. We then learn that Chris O’Dowd’s Great Aunt had passed away and that she left him this chest of dusty old mementos she’d collected over the course of her life. And might I just say that while Michael McKean’s English accent was flawless, there was very little that was funny or dynamic about his relationship with his father. From then on, we see Chris O’Dowd casually decide to investigate the contents of this chest, introducing his somewhat annoying and thoroughly tedious “best mate”, a small reveal about one of the items from the chest, a bad, flatly-written first date and then the show was over. I genuinely felt like there were seven scenes missing.

Generally, It felt like each scene softy and timidly crawled into the next, but there was very little vigor or life-force to the show propelling the story forward. I think the problem that I’M having with this show is that none of the characters are especially interesting or funny. I mean, let’s be a little bit real, Christopher Guest’s films are so hilarious because of that sense of spontaneity, experimentation and obviously improvisation with the actors. I’m fully aware I only have 1 episode to go on here, but that sense of freedom and chemistry certainly seems to be lacking. The whole thing felt very dry, which for any fan of Guest sounds like absolute nonsense. The relationship I really couldn’t get a handle on was Tom (Chris O’Dowd) and his best friend. It seemed entirely underdeveloped and, unfortunately, not terribly compelling. They had this ambiguously pugnacious interaction but had no pizazz or inherently funny details to keep me interested from scene to scene. And don’t get me wrong, I love Chris O’Dowd’s charming, cute “everyman” quality but for Christ’s sake can you give this man SOME defining character traits!? You might as well have put skinny jeans on a shamrock (like because he’s Irish?) and fed the lines through Roger Egbert’s unused voicebox and left more of an impression. Maybe I’m just too loyal to the old gang but I wanted to see some Catherine O’Hara and some Parker Posey and some Eugene Levy! I miss them. I will say by the end of the episode I ALMOST warmed up to the chick with the monkey but she just seemed like such a 1-note that I remain unconvinced.

The story’s delightfully simple premise didn’t really shake out the way I wanted it to either. It just felt there was so little urgency that I kept thinking “what’s the point? Where is this going?”. And the idea of Tom searching through his family history wasn’t framed in anything. Like WHAT was Tom doing before this that would logically drive him to dig through his lineage? Where was the set up? It just felt like the whole show was kind of drifting aimlessly in this contextless world with a very tenuous idea struggling to anchor the whole operation with something interesting. Ok, ok, I feel myself unraveling into a hostility puddle here but the more I think about it, the more I realize that nothing from this show really landed properly. And as I’m sure you’ve gleaned from this, I had pretty high expectations. Let me just say, Christopher, I expected better my friend 😦

Here’s hoping the first episode was a fluke and the subsequent season turns out to be the most genius and hilarious piece of television that ever was!

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