Family Tree: Chris O’Dowd is the saving grace of Christopher Guest’s semi-improvised sitcom

by | Jul 16, 2013 | All, Reviews

It appears to be the trend at the moment for everything on the BBC to be a co-production. From The White Queen to Top of the Lake, it seems that all of this summer’s biggest dramas have aired simultaneously in other countries. This set-up isn’t exclusive to drama though as transatlantic Episodes was shown on both BBC2 and Showtime, while tonight’s Family Tree has already aired on HBO.

Family Tree certainly has an impressive pedigree, as it has been directed and co-written by Christopher Guest. Guest is best known for contributing to some of the funniest mockumentary films from This is Spinal Tap to Best in Show. Guest’s mockumentary format is in full use during Family Tree, as the characters speak straight to camera to explain their backstories. I’m honestly not a fan of this sort of style unless its used contextually, like it was in The Office, and on Family Tree it just came across as a bit of a lazy storytelling device.

The series centres around Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd), a man who has recently been dumped by his girlfriend and fired form his job as a risk assessor. Tom’s father Keith (Michael McKean) informs him that his Great Aunt Victoria had passed away and had wanted Tom to have a chest full of family curios. Whilst delving in the chest Tom discovers a picture of a man in full military garb who Keith believes is Tom’s great-grandfather Harry. Tom uses his friendship with antiques dealer Mr Pfister (Jim Chadwick) to find somebody who may be able to help him learn more about Harry. Pfister puts him in touch with Neville St Aubrey (Christopher Fairbank) a photography expert who tells Tom that Harry isn’t the one in the picture but instead he was the one that took it. When Neville then shows Tom a picture of Harry he’s incredibly shocked by what he sees.

As well as seeing Tom explore some of his ancestors we see more from his family and friends. For example former-beefeater Keith tells of how he wants to be the next great inventor while Tom’s sister Bea (Nina Conti) explains why she has to carry a stuffed-monkey around with her at all times. It appears as if that, each week, Tom’s dim-witted friend Pete (Tom Bennett) will set him up on a date with a variety of inappropriate women. The first is Ellie (Natalie Walter), who is indeed ‘model pretty’ but believes that dinosaurs still exist.

My main issue with Family Tree is that its not quite sure what it wants to be. The central story about a young man trying to find his way in the world by looking back at his ancestors is a strong one, but it seems as if Guest doesn’t fully have faith in this one concept. That’s why Family Tree is full of scattershot ideas such as the inclusion of ventriloquist Nina Conti and her monkey, as well as the constant spoofs of British TV shows. The script itself isn’t packed with laughs and while the semi-improvised nature of the programme makes it seem fairly realistic it doesn’t mean that Family Tree is particularly funny. Though I’ve already mentioned it, I’m really not a fan of Family Tree’s documentary style and the to-camera interviews only seem to exist as a way to easily explain the central relationships. In addition, I found some of the major plot points incredibly sloppy, namely the explanation of why Tom was the only member of his family to have an Irish accent.

But if Tom didn’t have an Irish accent then we wouldn’t have the wonderful Chris O’Dowd in the lead, who to me is the only saving grace of Family Tree. While O’Dowd seems oddly subdued, he’s still incredibly likeable in Family Tree and seems to be the perfect choice to play a melancholic no-hoper. I also found his scenes to be the most believable and though he had excellent chemistry with Tom Bennett who played his best mate Pete. I also thought it was great to have the wonderful Christopher Fairbank in the cast and found his handful of scenes to be some of the programme’s most amusing.

Overall, I found family tree to be incredibly lacklustre. I thought it didn’t have the courage of its convictions and relied heavily on the faux documentary format to tell its story. While it does have the ever-reliable Chris O’Dowd in the lead, even he isn’t at his best while the rest of the cast all seem to be going through the motions. I definitely think that Family Tree does have a promising concept and maybe I’m being overly harsh judging it on its first episode alone. But, judging by this opening instalment, Family Tree is a sitcom that doesn’t have the wit or the charm that it should especially considering who’s involved.

Matt Donnelly

Matt Donnelly


Made in Staffordshire, Matt is the co-editor of the site and co-host of The Custard TV Podcast. Matt has been writing about TV for over fifteen years and has written for the site for almost a decade. He's just realised this makes him a lot older than he thought he was.


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