[Citation Needed] : How HBO’s “Family Tree” proves the documentary sitcom is still viable

“The way I feel about TV on Sunday is the way I used to feel about movies on Friday. TV is better than movies now. Accept it and drive on.”Patton Oswalt

The American version of “The Office” ran nine seasons. In just 4 years, “Modern Family” has won 29 awards.[1] I think it’s pretty safe to say that the documentary style sitcom is an established fixture on the American TV landscape. A lot of people will say that the format is tired; that it’s completely played-out and overdone like a buzzfeed list about the 90s. While one could argue that “The Office” was allowed to exceed its shelf life, it’s far from fair to dismiss the entire genre as whole. (I love Parks and Rec. Specifically Rob Lowe. More specifically his smile. Most specifically his teeth.)

Enter Christopher Guest: When we were drowning in our own self-inflicted malaise, we looked up and shouted “Save the documentary style sitcom!”. He looked down from his estate in Santa Monica and whispered “Okay.”[2]

Last month, Guest threw his hat into the sitcom ring with his new HBO show “Family Tree.” While this is his first sitcom, Guest is no stranger to the “mockumentary” style of storytelling.[3] While “Family Tree” is definitely in the same vein as This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Best in Show (2004), it is better described as “mockumentary-lite”. While the testimonials and shakiness of handheld cameras are true to form, the characters never look directly at the camera. The result is comedy that doesn’t feel forced. “Family Tree” is above and beyond a show that is well worth your time; it breathes new life into a genre we thought was on its deathbed. It’s Odysseus coming home and slaying all the suitors.

The show follows Tom Chadwick (the adorable Chris O’Dowd) who is inspired to retrace his lineage after a death in the family. Over the course of the season, the viewer joins Tom in unraveling what turns out to be an extensive and absurd family history that takes him from the UK to the US.  It’s an uncomplicated tale of self discover. Tom Chadwick has no crazy ambitions, the show has no goofy hooks, he’s simply putting one foot in front of the other and life is happening to him. He’s real.

Okay, so there’s one goofy hook. There’s a puppet. Tom’s sister, Bea, is Nina Conti who is brilliant comedian and insanely talented ventriloquist. This should actually encourage you to watch the show. I know Mel Gibson’s beaver (100% SFW I’m not a monster) left a horrible taste in our mouths, but you’re just going to have to trust me on this one. I am from the internet. I am pursuing an advanced degree and have been on many airplanes.

The show is a perfect blend of day-to-day conversation and unquestioned (to a point, again, monkey puppet) absurdity. The humor in the show lies in the dialogue and not in one-liners, fantasy sequences, voiceovers or any other easily criticized sitcom gimmick. It’s a barebones return to simplicity and I find it really refreshing. The jokes are presented in plain view for the audience. We can choose to laugh at them or let them go by the wayside. Guest doesn’t drop heavy handed comedy bombs on the audience. For example, a reoccurring character is a thrift shop owner. He has a South African accent. Nobody goes “oh gee let’s explore that remember District 9? You should open a PRRRRRAWN shop!” (As read by Kat Dennings’ cleavage on “Two Broke Girls”[4]) The guy has a South African accent. Accept it, or don’t. What you’re missing is that the character always has some kind of hypochondriac website up on his computer. It’s only kind of addressed.

This show doesn’t have any calculators in jello. John Krasinski is not shattering the 4th wall to tell you when to laugh by looking you directly in the eyes. Nobody is held at gunpoint by a laughtrack.[5] It’s more like theatre in that you control which part of the scene to focus on and enjoy.

Guest’s approach to directing brings out the best in the documentary style of sitcom. Many of the scenes are completely improvised and piece together from 2-3 takes. If this isn’t impressive enough Guest controls all of the camera work in real time through a headset. Furthermore, he is notoriously strict about casting. As with his movies, Family Tree features reoccurring actors like

Jim Piddock and Michael McKean. Guest only cast actors he is sure have the ability to handle and envision the complexity of the relationships between all the characters.[6] “Family Tree” proves that the documentary style sitcom is still a viable format. While Chuck Lorre follows in Garry Marshal’s footsteps in focusing on quantity over quality, Christopher Guest offers you 8 episodes of something much more. Fuckin’ art.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_awards_and_nominations_received_by_Modern_Family
[2] Alan Moore: Before Spinal Tap

[4] Go here for some “Two Broke Girls” rage. Deadshirt does not have time such triflings: http://www.televisionwithoutpity.com/telefile/2012/10/2-broke-girls-and-the-pearl-necklace-episode-review.php

[5] “Two and a Half Men” without a laughtrack– A study in crippling loneliness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbZCzu36ucc

[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G61Wz45bDDc

Post By Brian Garvey (10 Posts)

A self-aware cloud of gaseous complaints cooking up critical analysis hot 'n' fresh from his think kitchen.


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