Genealogy is a study of connections, a discipline of tracing lines and drawing conclusions and identifying links to the past that lend clarity to the present. That’s what motivates Tom Chadwick as he digs through his Great Aunt Victoria’s trunk: The search for parallels between his life and the lives of his ancestors and relatives, but also the hope that some object within that trunk will connect so directly with him that it’ll provide the sense of purpose that’s been eluding him for so long.
In that regard, Family Tree is a comedy of connections, which is a tough spot to start from. There are full subgenres of comedy that are predicated on near misses and misunderstandings, and the flailing about that occurs to recover from such circumstances. That’s not Christopher Guest’s preferred mode, however: The films of the Waiting For Guffman/Best In Show/A Mighty Wind trilogy find their cohesion in what’s shared by their disparate casts of characters, obsessions and fascinations that only make sense to a select group of people. Tom Chadwick is alone in that regard in Family Tree—though he knows how to find fellow genealogy nuts, because he tracked down his American relations on the fictional tracemypast.com—but he does share one basic thing with most of the people he interacts with: DNA.
Or at least he does with Keith and Bea. One Family Tree undercurrent that surges to the fore in “Country Life” involves Tom being more alone than he realizes. At least when it comes to being a Chadwick, that is: There’s nutty Luba, for starters, a constant reminder that his biological mother isn’t just a short drive away. And then there’s the big twist at the end of this week’s episode, which cleverly ties back to the turn on which “Treading The Boards” hinged: Tom’s never known his cousins from Derbyshire because they’re technically not his cousins. They’re descendants of Sid Balducci, the traitorous front end of the Chadwick & Balducci act, apples who didn’t fall too far from the pantomime horse tree—in that they stopped talking to the rest of the family when secret Chadwick Brian learned the truth of his parentage. In spite of its feints toward connections between the two Chadwick families, “Country Life” ends up being about what separates them—and, in the process, proves to be the funniest episode of the series to date.
Much of that has to do with the manner in which the episode both disproves and reinforces the “totally improvised” misnomer that trails all of Christopher Guest’s work. Like his trilogy of feature-length faux-documentaries (and This Is Spinal Tap), “Country Life” works because it has a strong, pre-planned spine. There are a few digressions starring Pete, but even those are firmly grounded in the thematic foundation of the episodes. (More on that in a bit.) But there’s an evident outline to the whole episode, a path in which the actors can wander about, so far as they don’t stray too far from the notion that, no matter their surface differences, these Chadwicks are cut from the same cloth. That’s most obvious in Keith’s bonding with Graham over Move Along, Please: The “city mouse” is in awe of his cousin’s autographed photo of the show’s star, Richard Breen (“Swapped it for Julie Andrews” “Well you came out ahead, didn’t you?”), but turns the tables when he manages to identify an episode of their mutually favored TV show within two seconds.
Yet, all along, the final edit of “Country Life” allows for suggestions that fundamental rifts exist between these groups of Chadwicks. The disagreement between Keith and Graham about non-sitcom police forces, the farmyard pranks Ronny keeps pulling on Tom—not for nothing does Tom hit it off better with his American relatives Al and Kitty (Ed Begley Jr. and Carrie Aizley, laying out the bridge to the first season’s U.S. jag) over a janky video chat connection. (There’s that word again!) And then the turn comes, and it all makes sense, but it doesn’t detract from any of the character interactions that have come before. It’s made all the better by the fact that the joke only works if you’ve been paying attention: Chris O’Dowd gets off a great “She got front-ended” that sends a line all the way back to the Chadwick & Balducci material from “Treading The Boards.” And suddenly and shockingly, the red hair of Graham, Ronny, and Ronny’s children makes all the sense in the world.
It takes the unrestrained id at the dinner table to really underline the ugly truth of the Chadwick split: Monk provides the button to a very, very awkward dinner scene by declaring “So, not to put too fine a point on it, redheads are bastards.” It’s a wickedly funny way of ending an episodes that’s been all about culture clashes among the Chadwicks. Surrounded by livestock, it’s the family’s bridge between the animal kingdom and civilization that stops dancing around the touchy subjects and makes the point that sticks, no matter how fine: The purest connections between people exist at the most basic, animalistic level.
Of the motifs that have emerged in this first half of Family Tree, I’ve most enjoyed the show’s playfulness with costumes and disguises. “Country Life” gives a straightforward treatment to that recurring element when Tom tries on an outfit that he hopes will help him fit in among his Derbyshire cousins; Mr. Pfister, meanwhile, thinks it makes him look “like a Grade A cock.” The character’s being flip, but Jim Piddock’s choice of insult obliquely ties into the Chadwick family tradition of dressing up like animals. It’s been diluted to the point that only Bea’s right hand goes for animal drag, but Chadwick & Balducci made a living by answering the call of the wild—and Balducci heeded its call to a degree that broke up the act and a family.
That primal urge plays into Pete’s “Country Life” subplot, a trifle from the bluer side of Guest’s sense of humor that finds some refreshingly moving material in that talking head about finding “the right girl.” (“None of the girls I’m seeing at the moment, they’re not mother material. Well, one of them is a mother, but hers are like 16 and 18.”) Tom Bennett’s my pick for the show’s secret MVP, and he paints a splendid picture of Pete in that segment, so earnestly and enthusiastically talking about fatherhood while inadvertently arguing against his qualifications for the job. The segment flashes a bit too much of the storyline’s subtext, but it provides some much needed grounding to scenes that could’ve very well been Bennett laughing and pointing at an artificial vagina for minutes at a time. (Not that he wouldn’t have found a way to smuggle a small bit of impish charm into the bit…)
In the end, no matter where our ancestors laid down roots, we’re all animals—and because of that, it’s hard to deny the humor of a tube that’s masquerading as genitalia. After several stops and starts in his quest, Tom’s about to set out in the opposite direction of his great-great-grandfather to find out if he can find any greater degree of connection between himself and his American relations. As such, “Country Life” provides great, hilarious motivation for Family Tree’s next steps.
- Given the sticky circumstances of Tom’s first meeting with Ronny, maybe it’s safer to say the current generation of Chadwicks prefer reaching into, rather than dressing up as, animals.
- Welp, there’s a fun new interpretation of “A.V.” for y’all to toss around.