“Family Tree,” the new HBO comedy from Christopher Guest, premiered Sunday (May 12), telling the story of Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd), who begins to explore his family heritage after inheriting a box of trinkets from a great aunt he never met.
The premiere is chock full of charm, allowing O’Dowd to capitalize on the good will he generated from his revelatory turn in “Bridesmaids.” But is charm enough to sell a comedy? The premiere also feels like it’s crawling towards its end — not an indicator of high-quality comedy.
Sure, it has to introduce a world — tonight, we meet Tom’s dad Keith (played by Guest regular Michael McKean) and sister Bea (played by Nina Conti), along with best friend Pete Stupples (Tom Bennett). But is that world enough of an excuse to avoid actual laughs?
There’s a strange subplot with Bea, who carries with her a monkey hand puppet to reveal her honest thoughts. Why the monkey? There’s a joke that, when young, Bea witnessed a puffin touching itself while staring at her and subsequent therapy encouraged expression through a puppet. It makes for some very surreal moments, and Conti is an expert ventriloquist, but this plot borders on cartoon.
The pedigree of Guest, coupled with the innate charm of O’Dowd, would seem to make for a brilliant half-hour of television — and maybe subsequent episodes will prove otherwise — but this premiere can only rely on that charm so much without the comedy to back it up. Also, the mockumentary format feels unnatural and tacked on. Why would these people be followed by cameras? There needs to be some feasible explanation for that. It’s painful to admit that the show is flimsy, but, for a series focused on DNA, its own seems ultimately flawed.
Did you enjoy “Family Tree?” Will you be joining Tom on his journey to know his heritage?