In a world of Parks and Recreation, Twenty Twelve, and the ever-changing beast that is Alan Partridge (please, please look up Mid-Morning Matters before you buy your ticket for Alpha Papa, you’ll thank me), Christopher Guest must feel as though he’s helped birth a monster.
The mockumentary has gradually become this generation’s answer to the old-fashioned sitcom: cheap, fun, largely disposable, and pinned on half-decent writers; whilst the modern sitcom has evolved into a sprawling mass of star vehicles written by entrants to the Annual Los Angeles Inoffensive Rom-Com-athon (‘Entrants must ensure their plots feature a minimum of ONE (1) impossibly attractive late-twentysomething repeatedly failing to secure a partner through EITHER hilariously misconstrued circumstances OR gimmicky date partners to be used as positions for special guest appearances’).
Guest, for those of us who had the misfortune not to have been around in the Eighties, is the man who created the oft-paralleled but never bettered This Is Spinal Tap, a brilliantly well-pitched satire of hedonistic rock. Guest’s distinctive tone is mocking, but affectionate, and it shines through clearly in Family Tree, his new comedy for BBC 2 and HBO. At its heart, the programme is sweet – or as sweet as a programme can be when featuring a foul-mouthed glove-puppet ape – almost jarringly so after the decade of the Gervais-inspired cringe-fests we’ve become accustomed to in this genre. Headed by Chris ‘That Lovely Irish One From Bridesmaids‘ O’Dowd, the cast all take to the naturalistic, understated direction of Guest with aplomb. As always with these things, the characters are mostly losers, but in the loveable kind of way: the well-meaning aunt buying you out-of-date Now That’s What I Call Music CDs for Christmas, to Gervais’s cruel uncle pouring another glass of Blossom Hill and letching on the nieces. As a result, it certainly feels a little pedestrian, and there’s none of the fist-bitingly awful buildups to horrific scenes of social embarrassment that usually top off similar shows. Instead, our episodic arc follows O’Dowd picking a newly inherited family heirloom and discovering another wacky relative in his past, with only the occasional deviation.
Guest may have limited himself a bit in terms of where the characters can go with such a formulaic plot, but it’s very pleasing to see the simple bits of development that come from little asides and quiet scenes. In the hands of a lesser writer, Nina Conti (the irrepressible ventriloquist and comedienne playing O’Dowd’s sister) would be nothing more than a source for cheap jokes, due to the aforementioned filthy monkey ever-present on her right-hand. Instead, Guest plays the puppet as a sort of comic id, blurting out vicious lines that his owner too polite to say, but at the same time functioning so as to carefully fleshing out Conti’s character with the now-said unsaid.
The scenes, when given enough time to meander off conversationally with half-improvised dialogue, are mostly very, very funny, rattling on at a pace that makes the half-muttered asides of O’Dowd as he encounters increasingly eccentric forebears all the more amusing. Sadly, the pace drops a little whenever the plot needs to go somewhere. One can almost hear the producer quietly whispering to Guest “Yes, this is all terribly funny Christopher, but this is television, would you mind just nudging back onto the story arc? Just for a moment?”
If one were to be brutally honest, there’s probably no more than five or ten minutes of genuinely entertaining viewing per episode, and it all seems to be over far too quickly. The script becomes too reliant on short, utterly functional and totally humourless plot-point scenes of phone calls and meetings that just serve to get in the way of what Guest does best: setting up the characters, giving them something to talk about, then watching as their insecurities, stupidities and mundanities bubble to the surface. If you’re prepared to wade through the tedious bits, there’s a great programme inside, with a level of warmth just bordering on the right side of sentimentality.
Words: Max Bruges