Family Tree Series Premiere Review: “The Box” (Season 1, Episode 1)


Alright, let’s get this party started. Anything created by Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap) and starring The IT Crowd‘s Chris O’Dowd is widely considered to be a party. Alright, fine, maybe not “widely” considered, but being a fan of both, it’s definitely a party to me. The Irish comedian is an up-and-coming star, who is currently getting some decent roles in Hollywood flicks (most notably in Bridesmaids) and will hopefully establish himself as a solid leading man in the future. He truly deserves it. Nevertheless, the character he plays wasn’t even the funniest character in the series premiere of Family Tree, which is Guest’s newest mockumentary. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the director’s work, he’s well-known for writing outlines instead of screenplays and letting his actors improvise the dialogue — think of him as a cross between Mike Leigh and Ricky Gervais.

The show features O’Dowd as Tom Chadwick, an awkward young man who’s been somewhat recently dumped and cries himself to sleep every night. As always, the Irish actor pulls off awkward and sarcastic marvelously — his performance is marvelous and swift. Tom’s father gives him a box, which once belonged to his great-aunt Violet and contains many seemingly useless items, with the exception of one photograph of a man wearing a military outfit that instantly catches Tom’s eye. He takes the picture to an antique salesman, who in turn refers him to an odd collector of memorabilia. Tom eventually finds out he’s not related to the man in the picture, but he’s actually a descendant of the Chinese man who took the photograph.

British comedian Nina Conti plays Tom’s sister Bea, a ventriloquist who seems to enjoy making backhanded compliments through a puppet monkey. Alas, she easily became my favorite character in the show’s first episode. Not only is she extremely amusing and entertaining, but also provides the episode’s biggest laugh as you see her working at a bank with her puppet monkey beside her. I’m not going to tell you the story of how she got into ventriloquy though, I couldn’t possibly do it justice — I guess you’re just going to have to watch the episode.

Tom Bennett plays Tom’s best friend Pete Stupples, who’s every bit as awkward as his mate, though in a different, more outgoing way. In their first scene together, they recall an incident involving peeing themselves in public when they were very little. He reminds me of the character played Curtis Armstrong in Risky Business — a friend who means well, yet ultimately succumbs to his mischievous nature. He sets up Tom with a girl who believed dinosaurs still existed, and we can tell he had a laugh about it. I’m curious to find out how his character will evolve throughout the season, though I’m not exactly sure how Guest planned on developing the characters, as previews showed Tom and Bea heading to the U.S. in order to connect with their relatives.

Keith Chadwick (Tom’s dad) is played by Michael McKean, who starred as lead singer David St. Hubbis in This Is Spinal Tap. The character spends his days watching Hindu sitcoms and inventing shoe fans. Yes, shoe fans. Of course, McKean would play such a character — his awkwardness is on par with Tom and Bea’s, and they truly seem like a slightly dysfunctional yet loving family. Before the start of the show, Keith divorced his children’s mother, who ended up moving back to Ireland with Tom, whereas Bea remained with her father in England. He now lives with an annoying woman who Bea notably loathes, as she calls her “inflatable” and deems her food disgusting. Well, the monkey takes the blame for it, obviously.

It’s a decent beginning for the show. If you’re a Spinal Tap fan, you’re likely to enjoy Family Tree‘s humor and strong characterization. I’m a sucker for mockumentaries, therefore I must say I can’t wait for next week’s episode, but if uncomfortable situations and visibly ad-libbed dialogue ain’t your style, you’d best look someplace else. Also, if you’re watching this because you loved O’Dowd in The IT Crowd, don’t expect the same kind of gags. Even though Family Tree delves into familiar territory, it feels fresh — the cast is extremely talented, and Guest’s direction is still perfectly adequate. The story could use some work, though. The premise seems rehashed from past sitcoms and movies (if not for the twist at the end), and at this point I’m a little tired of seeing O’Dowd play a recently broken up with Irish guy.

What do you think of HBO’s new series? Let us know in the comments below.