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Christopher Guest, Jim Piddock
Chris O'Dowd, Nina Conti, Tom Bennett, Carrie Aizley, Jim Piddock, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean
Writing Credits:
Christopher Guest, Jim Piddock

Written and created by Christopher Guest, Family Tree is a documentary-style comedy series conceived and produced in the manner of Guest's feature films. The story revolves around the journey of the 30-year-old Tom Chadwick (Chris O'Dowd), an Englishman in his 30s who has few roots, little family, and a somewhat unsure sense of his purpose in life. Having recently lost his job and girlfriend, Tom inherits a mysterious box of belongings from a great-aunt he never met, triggering a passion to investigate his family lineage. As Tom's interest in genealogy grows, his life expands and evolves in unexpected directions, as he uncovers a world of unusual stories and characters in the U.K. and the U.S., as well a growing sense of who he is and who his real family are.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1/16X9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 216 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 10/29/13

• “Keith’s Favorite 1970s Sitcoms”
• Bonus Scenes
• “Music from the Show”


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Family Tree: The Complete First Season (2013)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 9, 2013)

From 1997’s Waiting for Guffman through 2006’s For Your Consideration, Christopher Guest put out a new movie every three years. Then 2009 arrived and we got no fresh Guest flick.

And 2010.

And 2011.

And 2012, too.

Guest finally returned to the land of the living with 2013’s TV series Family Tree. This DVD set provides all eight of Season One’s episodes. The plot synopses come from the DVD’s menus.

The Box: “Unemployed and unattached, Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd) is surprised when he’s bequeathed an old chest of curios by his great-aunt Victoria, although he and his sister Bea (Nina Conti) – with her hand-puppet Monk – can’t remember ever meeting her. He finds an old black-and-white photo in the chest that his father Keith (Michael McKean) believes is Tom’s great-grandfather Harry. With the help of Mr. Pfister (Jim Piddock), his avuncular neighbor, Tom tracks down Neville St. Aubrey (Christopher Fairbank), a strange expert in the field of antique photos who discovers intriguing and revealing information about Tom’s ancestor. Meanwhile, his friend Pete (Tom Bennett) tries to get Tom’s love life back on track by setting him up with a ‘model pretty’ date. He’s just not sure what kind of model.”

While I’d like to say “Box” opens the series with a bang, I can’t, as it’s a pretty lethargic launch. To some degree, one would expect that, as Guest emphasized low-key humor in his prior works, but I must admit that “Box” seems awfully understated even for him. It’s not a bad show, but it doesn’t do much to draw us in and look forward to more.

Treading the Boards: “When Mr. Pfister discovers an unforeseen aspect of Tom’s great-grandfather Harry’s life, it leads Tom and Pete to the south coast of England, where Harry died many years before. They meet Sybil (Freda Barratt), an impossibly old woman, who still lives next door to the house Harry lived in and remembers him from her childhood.”

“Boards” manages a few more laughs than “Box”, but the show still seems so subdued that it occasionally feels like it may disappear without a trace. So far, I think much of the problem comes from the bland nature of Tom and the underuse of O’Dowd; he’s a talented comedic actor but even though he’s in most of the scenes, he just doesn’t have much to do. Like “Box”, a few gentle chuckles emerge, but the show doesn’t make me all that eager to continue.

The Austerity Games: “Bea and Monk audition to perform at a children’s birthday, while Tom starts digging deeper into the life of his grandfather William, who he suspects might have competed in the 1948 ‘Austerity Games’.”

Three shows in, and I can’t decide if I like or hate Tom’s friend Pete. On one hand, he’s a broad character who feels like he’s out of a different series, but on the other, at least he adds some life to this relentlessly deadpan show.

Don’t get me wrong – I like deadpan and low-key humor. However, the gags here seem barely existent and without much to provoke mirth. I continue to hope that the show will improve but after three episodes, my doubts dominate.

Country Life: “Tom finally has an interview for a job. He also discovers that he has cousins in both Derbyshire and California, and makes a plan to visit both and learn more about the Derbyshire branch of the family tree.”

Is Tree supposed to be a character piece that focuses on one man’s attempts to find himself or is it a broad comedy with fart, castration and spooge jokes? As “Life” reminds us, it wants to be both, and the two sides integrate in an awkward manner.

That said, the comedic landscape remains so barren that – God help me – I’ve been forced to laugh at a woman pooping at the side of the road and covering it with dirt. I’ve officially hit rock bottom, and so has Tree.

Oh, and I’ve decided: I hate Pete.

Welcome to America: “Tom arrives in Los Angeles to stay with his American cousins, Al and Kitty Chadwick (Carrie Aizley), and to discover why his great-great-grandfather Charles left for England more than a hundred years ago.”

With a change of setting, Tree finally shows signs of life, largely due to the arrival of the acting cavalry: Guest, Begley and Fred Willard. Staples of Guest’s movies, they add real life to the proceedings and Tree finally starts to feel like Guest’s work, as it provides the clever quirkiness that’s his trademark. “America” doesn’t remove the stink of the boring first four shows, but at least it gives me hope that the rest of the season will entertain.

Civil War: “Tom’s cousin Rick (Matt Griesser), an American Civil War enthusiast, helps Tom find out more about his great-great-grandfather Charles’ mysterious activities as a soldier in the war.”

Tree continues its upswing with the likable “War”. It mixes its direct plot elements with extraneous – but amusing – bits to create a pretty likable program. S1 continues to look up.

Indians: “Tom rents a classic convertible car and meets Ally for lunch, where they get to know each other a little better. Bea and Pete arrive to share Tom’s last two weeks in America.”

Pete, Bea, and Monk: the Tree Axis of Evil. Is it a coincidence that the series prospered with them nearly non-existent for two shows? Is it a coincidence that S1 regresses when they come back to the fore? No and no. “Indians” still comes with some decent moments, but it provides a step back after two straight good shows, and the Axis becomes the main reason why.

Cowboys: “On their last day in California, Bea, Monk and Pete hit the beach, while Tom, accompanied by Ally, meets Tom’s distant cousin Melvin Schmelff (Bob Balaban), whose grandfather was Tumbleweed Tim, a famous silent-movie cowboy star.”

S1 ends with another iffy effort, with the weakest elements due to the old Axis of Evil; I’m not saying an idiotic search for Monk – who gets lost on the Venice boardwalk - is the season’s nadir, but if not, it’s close. A few funny moments redeem “Cowboys” slightly – like Al’s conspiracy theories – but I still think this is a spotty episode that finishes a lackluster season.

Will S2 improve on this model? Hopefully, but as long as Bea, Monk and Pete form an important part of the series, that’ll be tough; it’s difficult to pull off a satisfying series when three of your main characters are so relentlessly annoying and unamusing. I have enough faith in Chris Guest to hope for the best, but I must admit S1 disappointed me.

The DVD Grades: Picture B+/ Audio C+/ Bonus D+

Family Tree appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.78:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. This was a consistently appealing presentation.

Only minor issues affected sharpness. Occasional wide shots a little iffy, but those were infrequent. The majority of the film seemed accurate and concise. No problems with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and edge enhancement was absent. Source flaws also failed to create any distractions.

As for the film’s palette, it went with natural tones that veered toward the subdued side. These didn’t dazzle but they seemed appropriate. Blacks appeared deep and firm, while shadows seemed clear and well-developed. I felt pleased with this fine transfer.

Family Tree provided low-key material with its Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Dialogue dominated, with music also a moderate presence. Effects stayed environmental and remained resolutely in the background. If anything notable occurred in the side or rear speakers, I didn’t witness it; effects had so little to do that they barely made their presence known. Given the subject matter, that wasn’t a bad thing, but it did leave us with a lackluster soundscape.

Audio quality seemed good. Speech was concise and natural, with no edginess or other distractions. Music showed nice life and vivacity, while effects were clean and reasonably accurate. Nothing here stood out but the material suited the show reasonably well.

Only a handful of extras fill out the set, and they all show up on Disc Two. Keith’s Favorite 1970s Sitcoms offers clips from two of the fake TV series we glimpse during the season. We get two snippets from There Goes the Neighbourhood (1:58) and another two from Move Along, Please (2:15). They’re delightful in their intentional awfulness.

13 Bonus Scenes occupy a total of 12 minutes, 24 seconds. Most of these provide little character bits, without any narrative importance. Most are also pretty forgettable, though the ones with Fred Willard and Ed Begley have some merit.

Lastly, Music from the Show gives us seven tunes heard across the episodes. These give us the series’ theme song and tracks used for fake TV programs found in S1. We get the “R&B” song Al plays in the car and a couple of other elements. It’s a decent collection.

With Christopher Guest as a leading contributor, I had high hopes for Family Tree. Unfortunately, most of the season failed to live up to those expectations. The series shows occasional glimmers of life but never coalesces into something consistently enjoyable. The DVD brings us very good picture along with average audio and a few minor bonus materials. Season One of Tree has its moments but it ends up as a disappointment.

Viewer Film Ratings: 5 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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