For all the veteran improvisational comedy star power in Christopher Guest's winningly eccentric HBO mockumentary "Family Tree," it's somehow strangely appropriate the breakout character is a monkey puppet.
The bluntly spoken, if somewhat glum, Monkey – or Monk, for short – has emerged as the most honest character on a show where a comedic pitfall-filled quest to dig into family roots masks a bittersweet search for a sense of self.
" caps its eight-episode run Sunday as the, by turns, oddest – and perhaps most realistic – depiction of family life on TV, Monkey and all.
"Family Tree" stars Chris O'Dowd as Tom Chadwick, a sweet, down on his luck, Irish Londoner recently dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his job as an accident investigator. He inherits what looks like a box of old junk from a grandaunt. But he sees the items – pictures, buttons and other knick-knacks – as pieces in the puzzle of his fractured life.
This being a Christopher Guest production, the clues lead to misunderstanding, disappointment – and plenty of laughs. Tom’s discovery his great-grandfather was a celebrated stage performer is tempered by the revelation that fame came playing the back end of a mule in a pantomime horse act. In the season’s most hilarious sequence, Tom fills the back half of his great-grandfather’s costume for a Monty Python-esque race into humiliation.
Tom’s mission later takes him to California, where he meets U.S. relatives, chases a false lead that he’s part Native American and participates uncomfortably in a Civil War re-enactment, where a short would-be Lincoln fights a height-appropriate version of the 16th President (“This is a civil war – can you try and be civil?” Tom scolds a Confederate re-enactor).
The largely improvised show is buoyed by some of Guest’s stable of regulars, dating to the “This is Spinal Tap” days. Michael McKean plays Tom’s father, who is obsessed with broad-humored 1970s British sitcoms – offering funny shows-within-a-show and exhibiting a trait that spans different branches of family. The living relatives Tom discovers are as flawed as their all-too-human forbearers.
Ed Begley Jr. portrays a conspiracy theory-minded American cousin who is convinced an ancestor played a role in the assassination of Lincoln (who, incidentally, was killed while watching a play called “Our American Cousin”). Fred Willard is his un-PC lout of a neighbor. Guest shows up as an oddball southern cousin with a possible dark secret.
Guest’s newest players, though, prove the standouts. O’Dowd imbues Tom with a sad-sack likableness. An energetic Tom Bennett shines as Tom’s endlessly enthusiastic, if dopey, pal Pete. Nina Conti does double duty as Tom’s sister Bea, and her ever-present alter ego, Monkey (“She’s in denial,” Monk says of Bea, “ but fortunately, I have access to the truth”).
Conti elevates Monk beyond cheap laughs, bringing a strangely compelling poignancy and humanity to the dour felt figure. Monkey gave us one of the funniest moments of the season – an inappropriate ventriloquism act at a Greek wedding (“It’s nice to see you here despite the economic downfall”) – and its most poignant (Monkey Skypes Tom to solemnly tell him Bea’s been fired from her – or rather, their – bank job).
The mix of the absurd, occasionally tinged with sadness, marks vintage Guest, recalling the “Waiting for Guffman” dreamers reaching for the stars, and the “Best in Show” competitors, lusting for vicarious glory. Only Tom is seeking his vicarious glory through his lineage, instead of pets.
Monkey, of course, is no pet and is deeply embedded in the Chadwick DNA. The puppet’s fate is at the center of Sunday’s finale. Check out a clip below as we hope Tom doesn’t find all that he’s looking for, if only to give us another season of “Family Tree”:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.
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