TV Review – Family Tree, BBC2

It's directed by Christopher "Spinal Tap" Guest, it stars homme du jour Chris O'Dowd. What could possibly go wrong with Family Tree? I've just watched the first episode and I'm totally thrown. It is clearly intended to be a comedy, but so far the laughs are painfully thin on the ground. Though this may just be me. Previewers who I am usually in step with seem to be garlanding Family Tree with plaudits, while I stand at the side, politely not getting it.

The plot could be written on the side of an iPhone. O'Dowd plays Tom Chadwick, a lovable, single and unemployed chump, who inherits a chest from his dead great-aunt and decides to investigate some of the artefacts in it. In week one he does some research into an old black and white photo that looks like a military ancestor. Elsewhere in the episode, he goes on a date with a woman who believes dinosaurs still exist and meets his father (Michael "David St Hubbins" McKean, an ex-Beefeater who invents things like shoe-coolers when not watching naff sitcoms (you almost expect Ricky Gervais in When The Whistle Blows to appear on his telly at some point).

The first episode in this no-laugh-track, semi-documentary (some bits to camera, some not), is positively rammed with oddballs. Tom's sister Bea is played by ventriloquist Nina Conti, which is handy because like Conti Bea also carries a monkey puppet called Monk. A psychiatrist suggested it would help her to cope after a disturbing experience with a puffin as a child and she is still using it, even when working as a bank cashier (the funniest scene in ep 1, no contest, though it's still not that funny).

Later on there are even more broad, screwy characters, which should, in theory, make it very funny. So why wasn't I laughing? I think part of the problem rests with the style, which manages to be both underplayed and cartoon-ridiculous, lacking any hint of subtlety. It is apt that I thought of When The Whistle Blows earlier because there feels like a big Gervais influence here in the naturalistic approach. Except, of course that Gervais was heavily influenced by Spinal Tap in the first place, which Guest and McKean memorably starred in and co-wrote.

The big difference between The Office and Family Tree, however, is that The Office was scripted to within an inch of its life, making every line count. Family Tree is improvised. I assume that there were plenty of takes that were cut, but there are plenty that stay in that simply fall flat. At times the tone feels awkward and uneven. There seems to be a lot of reliance on a veritable Babel of accents. Tom's stepmother, for instance, is played as a comedy Moldovan. The result is an unnerving mix of deadpan, slow burn humour and over the top caricatures.

Improvised dialogue can, of course, work brilliantly. The best example is probably Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry David sets out a rough template of the scene and the cast works their way around it. I'm not quite sure what Guest's technique was but the opening episode just doesn't land right. Great performances, hardly any real gags, except for the ones from Conti's character, with Monk chipping in with inappropriate remarks around the dinner table.

I desperately want to love this, but judged purely on part one of eight, Family Tree is quite an achievement in the wrong way. Somehow a terrific cast in front and behind the camera has been assembled, but everyone here has done better work elsewhere. Guest and McKean in Spinal Tap. Conti live onstage and in her memorable BBC4 documentary last year about ventriloquism, and O'Dowd in Moone Boy and The IT Crowd. Because I really want Family Tree to work I will stick with it. In fact I'm going to take a leaf out of the IT Crowd and turn it off and turn it on again. Maybe that will make it better.

Family Tree is on BBC2 on Tuesdays at 10pm.

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