HBO’s Family Tree – Pilot Review

Rating: 7.0

HBO’s “Family Tree” Pilot, entitled “The Box,” starts off with Tom Chadwick and his sister Bea driving in London to see their father who has some interesting news for them about their family. This will be the first of many journeys Tom takes in this series in a quest to learn about his ancestry, and he will also discover a lot about himself.

Chris O’Dowd plays Tom, a 30 year old, whose life appears to be somewhat stuck in a rut since his heart was broken 6 months earlier. (In his sister’s words, he has just completed “six months of wallowing.”) He and his sister Bea (Nina Conti) learn from their father Keith (Michael McKean) that their great aunt Victoria has passed, leaving them a box full of seemingly random memoirs & collectibles. Tom digs into this box and discovers what he believes to be a photo of a relative and soon after engages in a mini-investigation to learn more. In all likelihood this will set the tone for the series, maybe not something from the box every time, but some kind of past-digging mission will surely be included in each episode.

Created by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock, this series is in the (arguably mastered by Guest) mockumentary style. Guest has added genealogy to his list of mockumentary subjects, which includes heavy metal, musicals, folk music, and dog shows. I wouldn’t necessarily say that genealogy is a welcome addition to this list, but similar to his work on “A Mighty Wind,” “This is Spinal Tap,” and “Best of Show,” Guest’s writing style is more about idiosyncratic human behavior & working relationships than the main subject matter itself.

The first installment of this series, as is the case with all pilots, has to pull double duty and set up the series main conflict as well as provide a decent narrative within the episode itself. I give “The Box” a B- for both of these efforts. Tom’s character has been presented to us as a fairly stable though unemployed ‘wallowing’ chap whose parents separated when he was nine. He is completely likeable, and I want him to find a job, a new love, and learn about his family, but I don’t see this as a major conflict; I am not that worried about him. His sister has some issues to work out; she’s developed a habit of using a monkey puppet to express herself, though she seems to be doing fine and only uses the monkey to ‘overexpress,’ sharing some comments that are inappropriate and/or rude. Though this was very funny as well as different, I hope that Bea can resolve these issues so we do not have to experience the monkey puppet throughout the entire series. She, too, does not seem too troubled. So it is hard – though this will likely change as we learn more about Tom, Bea, and Keith – to see a major conflict here.

The subplot of the episode itself, the investigation of the historic photo, was entertaining, and the revelation that Tom’s grandfather was Chinese (or dressed as a Chinese man) was an unexpected and humorous conclusion. The confusion that was generated by that discovery did ‘hook’ me, and I look forward to finding out more about that. But this particular adventure was not terribly exciting nor did I think that what Tom was trying to learn was that meaningful to him.

The casting, acting, and dialogue in this pilot are all excellent, which made this pilot a great one despite the lack of a powerful main conflict and an average episode subplot. I love the type of scene that shows the personality quirks of the characters, such as ‘Landmarks in a Bottle’ and ‘the shoe heater/cooler.’ Landmarks in a bottle was short and to the point, so that one worked really well. The shoe heater/cooler was a little long and silly, and though it established that Tom’s dad Keith has a bit of crazy in him (or maybe just too much free time), I wished that sequence and the idea of a shoe heater/cooler was just a little funnier.

Since the mockumentary style is now well established, audiences are very familiar with the format. (This series is not a self-aware mockmentary, like Spinal Tap or ‘The Office,’ however the insertion of interview scenes puts this single camera series into this category.) With this familiarity comes an expectation to see something a little different, and “The Box,” though it demonstrates its creators’ mastery, doesn’t bring anything new to the mockmentary format. (but I must acknowledge that the talking monkey puppet is different).

In this pilot, I see a perfectly well executed episode in this now-popular style, however I hope the content itself becomes more engaging. Specifically, I want to be more vested in Tom’s character as he moves from branch to branch in “Family Tree.” However with this project’s on and off screen talent, my suggestion is to definitely hang in there – I think this will likely develop into an excellent series.

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