The BBC / HBO co-production Family Tree snuck under my radar – premiering the day that I first heard of its existence – and continued to fly low for a number of weeks although I was watching every episode close to live. It was a little show – a small production with a small cast telling the small story of a man who decides to look into his lineage outside the small bubble of relatives that he was raised with – which for weeks had little impact on me – small chuckles, slight winces, stereotypical UK comedy reactions – but this week’s season – and likely series – finale left me with the largest smile on my face and a certainty that it would slot into my Top Ten somewhere come years end.
It would be easy to say that the show simply found itself, since it is structured in two distinct halves – Spoiler, I guess: The Chadwick line eventually leads to the United States, where the show is then set – and since that very line is sung in the closing credits theme (which I will definitely get to later) but I’m not sure that’s the case. Those early episodes of the show were shot in a different setting, but they held the same style and tone of the show in its closing moments. Honestly I think that it’s more a case of me finding the show, settling in to its pace and mindset and of its specifically arced emotional upswing that mirrors the move from the shallows of London to the sun-scorched expanse of Los Angeles.
My experience with the show is strangely mirrored quite exactly in the structuring of each episode: the show opens softly as a simple white icon settles silently onto the black left behind after HBO’s grating static. It’s so subtle that honestly, I couldn’t tell you what the icon even is; though at a guess, it’s probably a tree. The end though? That’s often my favorite part. Family Tree is the brainchild of Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock (who presumably headed the US and UK sections respectively) and Guest’s old school entertainer experience shines through in the fact that he wrote a song for the show to go out with and enlisted the British balladeer Ron Sexsmith to sing it. In an inverse to most shows that I watch I eagerly awaited the end of an episode, because I knew that song was coming and that it would prove such a potent cap to the program proceeding it.
Strangely then,given its specific history, the song (which you can listen to HERE, but would be better served listening to at the end of an episode of Family Tree) seemingly has little to do with the content of the show itself – no mention is made of family, of history, of travel – and yet it suits so perfectly, particularly given the direction in which the show goes and where they chose to leave us in the final shot. One could argue that the song isn’t sensationally written, that it consists mainly of cliches strung along into sentences and they would be hard to refute and perhaps it works because one could also say the very same about the show.
While Guest’s style was once revolutionary it has now become rather familiar – both the awkward laughter and the documentary format – and so a simple synopsis of the show doesn’t sound so appealing: Chris O’Dowd plays his typical affable loser who goes to visit one outlandish relative a week with his Gervais Jr. protege Pete or his possibly schizophrenic sister Bea, who doesn’t go anywhere without her talking monkey puppet Monkey. The theater people are crazy into theater! The people in LA like health crazes! Civil War re-enactments? Crazy! Amazingly though the show managed to make these situations into more than just chuckle worthy skits, they always looked below the surface and found the sweet, emotional story beneath, just as Sexsmith does during the song.
Family Tree is a comedy, but even at its best i chuckled more than I out and out laughed. It’s a drama, but it never really shocked me, stirred in me deep thoughts or deep emotions. It was simply a small, laid back, lackadaisical show that consistently made me smile, the smile growing wider with each week. So obviously I want it to come back for a second season, eight episodes isn’t enough of a good thing, but at the same time it ends in such a satisfying way that I’m happy for the show to close here – running just a little longer than a movie of this sort reasonably would – and happier still that I stumbled upon it eight weeks back and watched it through. Which is definitely something that you should do.