I wasn’t expecting to like Family Tree as much as I did. I know much of what’s on HBO is good, but I wasn’t sold prior to the show’s first episode. Mostly, it was because of the fact I’ve never connected much to Christopher Guest films and his mockumentary approach to telling stories. And seeing as he directed Family Tree, I wasn’t sure how it would all work. Yet, once its series premiere, “The Box,” began, I noticed a smile had crept on my face that didn’t end until the show’s conclusion.
The episode begins learning about the lead character, Tom Chadwick. He’s in his thirties, recently unemployed, living in London. Adding insult to injury, the love of his life dumped him six months previous. An overdone plot for sure. Yet, it’s the likeability of Tom, played with subtle expertise by Chris O’Dowd that kept me watching. Tom and his sister, Bea, drive over to their father’s house. Keith, their father, announces to both over a humorous dinner provided by their quirky mother-in-law that there has been a death in the family. Their great-aunt has died and left them all something. Tom is handed over the box, a giant chest containing odd treasures.
Once home, Tom rummages through the box and finds an old picture of a stout man, dressed in military garb, who he thinks is his great grandfather Harry. This is where Tom’s adventure with the box begins. He takes the picture around to an old store owner who sends Tom to Neville St. Aubrey, an antique dealer. There, accompanied by Tom’s best friend, Pete, he learns more about his great-grandfather. Tom’s great-grandfather is not the man in the picture, but was the photographer. At episode’s end, Tom is shown a picture of his great-grandfather, surprisingly dressed in something a little out of the ordinary.
One of the best parts of “The Box” was being introduced to Tom’s sister, Bea played by Nina Conti. She is simply hilarious. Bea carries around a hand puppet, called Monk, for it’s a monkey, who speaks for her inner voice. But this inner voice speaks all the inappropriate things we’d like to say, but never do. Hence, the term ‘inner.’ Bea has an outlet for that voice, and the shocking things said are followed by other people’s responses, which are quite priceless.
Another hilarious scene in “The Box” is following Tom on a date. Not only awkward, the date turns bizarre when his date, Ellie, talks about dinosaurs, revealing her belief that some dinosaurs are still alive today. Tom, almost choking on his food, asks her to explain. This leads to an adorably foolish dialogue, but it all works. Tom’s reactions are so real and subtle, they heighten the show’s humor.
One of the things I liked most about the first episode of Family Tree was the accuracy at which the show pokes fun at men alone in their 30’s looking for some kind of meaning. And I know; I’ve been there. Tom Chadwick is aimlessly going through life, wallowing in self pity, looking for meaningless work, playing hours of video games in his underwear. Okay, I’m not a gamer, but I have lain around in…you get my point. The show resonates with Tom’s desire to find something, anything that will pull his life up to at least a moderate level of, dare I say, happiness. Can one be content without all the shiny bells and whistles found only in what we are told defines modern success and happiness? Of course. But it takes work, as Tom is learning. His life is inundated with things he doesn’t have: namely, someone or something to love. Perhaps he will find this in the box, potentially taking him on an adventure of self discovery.