HBO's Family Tree: Proof that documentary-style sitcoms aren't completely stale

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Chris ODowd and the progenitor of the modern mockumentary
  • Chris O'Dowd and the progenitor of the modern mockumentary
These are confusing times for TV viewers. Fewer and fewer sitcoms are being filmed in front of live studio audiences, thus fewer pratfalls and funny booby jokes are being accompanied by a laugh track. Millions of people are sitting at home staring at their TVs with stupid looks on their faces, waiting for cues from their viewing companions, growing tenser by the minute because they have no idea when to laugh if TV isn't telling them when to laugh.

Of course this isn't the case. Not because we aren't stupid, but because modern sitcoms—documentary and mockumentary-style sitcoms, in particular—came up with a new way to cue laughter in the living rooms of dullards nationwide: the furtive glance at the camera. Someone's being laughably goofy on The Office. How do I know? Jim just stared right through time and space and told me with his eyes. Isn't that weird? No, it's OK because the camera's supposed to be there. Why? WHO KNOWS AND STOP ASKING SO MANY FUCKING QUESTIONS.

(PS: There's a video of a scene from the Big Bang Theory without a laugh track, and it's a must-watch for anyone interested in what deeply, deeply unfunny looks like.)

The documentary-style sitcom is wearing out its welcome. I was very on board for Reno 911; I was a lot less on board by the time Parks and Rec came around (which isn't to say I didn't end up liking it). Practically the only person who could get away with a new doc/mock-style sitcom at this point is Christopher Guest, which works out great for him because he has a new doc/mock-style sitcom on HBO called Family Tree.

A right-off-the-bat-great thing about Family Tree: it more closely resembles Guest's movies—Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap—than it resembles other shows of its ilk. The only time characters acknowledge the camera is when they're being interviewed. No, we don't know why they're being interviewed, but at least we're not being required to believe a camera crew is forever following them around.

It would actually make sense here, because our main character, Tom Chadwick (played in a very Chris O'Dowd fashion by Chris O'Dowd), is on a mission. After receiving a box of "bits and bobs" (British for "odds and ends") that was left to him by a dead great-aunt and finding inside it a photograph of a mutton-chopped, turn-of-the-century man in full military regalia whom he assumes is his grandfather, Tom sets out to piece together his family's past. Their present isn't particularly impressive. Tom's wallowing in the wake of a major breakup. His father Keith (Michael McKean) spends his days watching bad sitcoms (with laugh tracks, naturally) and being married to a woman who speaks some bizarre form of pidgin. Tom's sister Bea (comedian Nina Conti) delivers about half of her thoughts through a monkey hand puppet she was prescribed as therapy after a childhood vacation to Wales, during which she saw a puffin masturbating. ( Harlan Pepper and his puppet in Best in Show.)

The outlandish details revealed during the interview segments, which appear to be mostly improvised, become woven seamlessly into the episodes' plot lines and into the characters' back stories in a way that makes the show feel a lot more organic and fresh and funny than other documentary-style sitcoms (as cool and format-busting as they probably consider themselves). I mean, it's a good place to start, but it takes more than nixing the laugh track to make a show worth watching. Family Tree is worth watching.

Gwynedd Stuart writes about TV on Wednesdays.

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