Since delving into Christopher Guest's new television series Family Tree, I have been asked by many a Best in Show and A Mighty Wind fan deprived of an HBO subscription, "Is it hilarious?" And the answer, the unabashed truth, is no. Throughout the seven-episode season, I found myself going full half-hours without more than a laugh or two — and we're talking modest chuckles. Approaching the program with the expectations garnered from years of adoring Guest's uproarious big screen work, I found myself perplexed by the pilot: Are these punchlines supposed to earn more than just a knowing smirk? Are the gags and quirks of these subdued characters meant to stand up against the riotous one-liners of Guest's past work? Perhaps the director was going for something different, something alogether new, with this venture — something that might aptly be defined not only by its comedy but by its drama.
A full season having gone by, I still wonder exactly what Family Tree was going for all this time, whether it meant to identify itself by its laughter or its heart. But this muddled identity notwithstanding, these seven episodes proved that Guest knows precisely how to tell a story. On Sunday night, the chapter closed on star Chris O'Dowd's wayward hero Tom Chadwick, a recently unemployed and newly single 30-year-old Londoner who compenstates for his new void of substantial happiness by investigating his own family tree (an exploit brought on by the passing of a great aunt he barely knew). Having somewhat of a conflicted relationship with his alarmingly eccentric sister Bea (Nina Conti) — who carres a monkey puppet with her at all times through which to speak candidly — and their moreover distant father Keith (Michael McKean), Tom seems to look at family as the "final frontier," after coming up short in the realms of the romantic and the professional.
And so, his journeys take him much farther than he might have anticipated. He discovers his roots in showbiz, a set of unknown second cousins in a rural England town, and — in what seems to be the pay-off to which the first half of the season had been leading — takes a trip to U.S. soil when he finds out about a collection of Chadwicks residing across the pond, dating back to the 1800s.
The latter four episodes have Tom uniting with his American brethren: conspiracy theorist Al (Ed Begley Jr.) and his flighty hippie wife Kitty (Carrie Aizley), an eccentric but good-hearted pair who open their home to their visiting cousin; Civil War reenactor Rick (Matt Greisser) and his incurably blunt girlfriend Julie (Maria Blasucci), who also enjoy their share of clubbing; and oddball Southerner Dave (Guest himself), who suffers from a vestigial tail and hasn't seen his wife in two years. But his journeys do not cease with the Chadwicks — Tom learns, through interracting with his new kinfolk, that he has roots in American Indian and Jewish lineages, eventually coming to meet the equally amicable Schmelff side of the family (which includes the familiar faces of Kevin Pollak and Guest fixture Bob Balaban).
Recalling just how eager each new character is to welcome Tom into his or her life and home offers a new rationale behind what makes Family Tree work so well in the absence of obviously laugh-out-loud comedy, or punch-to-the-gut tearjerker moments. Whereas Tom's plight to find new family could have easily disintegrated into mayhem in the face of unanticipated madness, the quirks and eccentricities of his new relatives are met with the sort of kindly, humorous sensibility that you adopt to approach your own relatives' psychological shortcomings. Everyone that Tom meets, even Rick's didactic historian friend Harvey (Don Lake) who grows frustrated with Tom's irreverence for their Civil War reenactments, is more than happy to help him on his mission, and is just as excited as he about the background and legacy of the Chadwick clan.
Of course, the series takes some pretty standard turns: Tom meets an American girl, Ally (Amy Seimetz), whom he saves from a scuffle via his talents assessing the point of fault in traffic accidents, and becomes smitten with her, as does she with him. In the finale, he pioneers a ribald affection for his sister, warts and all, when he steals back her beloved Monk after it has been apprehended by a stubborn charity worker. These are the "high points" of the show's energy, the explosions of purpose and direction. Otherwise, Family Tree delivers a slight, slow, smooth arc to get Tom over his breakup and layoff, allowing him a new sense of self worth, which he derives from his bloodline adventure. And it's as engaging as it is pleasant.
Its outlying climactic beats aside, the series takes pride in its low energy and its realism, melding that classic Guest nuttiness with some down-to-earth charm. It's not as much a comedy as it is a venerable slice of life — we accompany Tom on his trip, which fits not to any particular storytelling form, but unravels organically as he learns about, contemplates, and experiences these new episodes of his life. So perhaps it isn't a misplaced identity at all, but just one that we don't often see on television: a program that realizes we don't need excess comedy or drama to stuff a story. We just need to be, as the character of Tom is at his core, fascinated with the intrinsically majestic idea of a story itself.
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Happy Endings has never really been about... well, anything. Although a riff on the likes of Friends and Cheers and Suddenly susan and all the will-they-won't-theys of the sitcom history books with its Dave and Alex throughline, the emotional investment in these two characters' union has been tepid at best. Although we might love spending time with the sextet week in and week out, we never really seemed to give much of a damn if the goateed V-neck addict and the flighty, rib-scarfing half pint would actually end up together in the end. There wasn't much meat to Penny's unrequited affections for Dave; never a good deal of intrigue in any turns taken by Jane and Brad's relationship. This show has forgone the manipulation of audiences' sap centers in favor of nonstop comedy. Happy Endings might tout itself, in title, a show working up to an ultimate romantic explosion, but it is really the joke-paved path that we sign on for.
Or so I thought. This week's episode of Happy Endings, tragically, might well be our final farewell to the Chicago clan. The double header introduced the ill-fated plan of Dave and Penny's still-dating parents (Michael McKean and Megan Mullally) to adopt a baby; it created a new character, Jane and Alex's controlling older sister (Stephanie March), fully acknowledging the peculiarity in her never having been mentioned before; it had Max wearing a headband; and, most importantly, it broke up Dave and Alex. This time, perhaps, for good.
Now, if this were a simple season finale, I'd have hope. We've seen this song and dance before. The pilot tore this lifelong couple apart. Subsequent twists and turns had them reconnect, decide against a union, and then wind up together again. Their relationship throughout Season 3 has exhibited some bumps and some sweet moments alike. And if a Season 4 does amount, there's a large possibility we'll see them back in each other's arms at one point or another. But if not, then this is what we're left with: Dave and Alex broken up forever.
And while I still do firmly believe that Happy Endings is pretty much all for the jokes, I'm not sure I want to live in a world where there's no shot of a Rose-Kerkovich future. While the couple doesn't exactly have a perfect track record, the reveal seemed to come out of nowhere — a cliffhanger for cliffhanger's sake. Season finale 101. As such, I'm not validated by their separation, and not too comforted by their decision to stay friends. I'm sad that it seems to have not worked out, and for no particular reason. Just because, hey, we've gotta do something to cap this year.
Season 2 ended with Dave and Alex back together, so I can only assume that the show's plan has been to wrap each season with a new update for the central couple. And that would be fine. A long, torturous, misguided love affair is all we need from Dave and Alex. Ross and Rachel hopped up on Zimas. And those two, no matter how wrong they might have been for each other, ended up together. Happily. That's what I, and so many of us, want for Dave and Alex.
It took this possibly eternal breakup for me to realize how much their staying together meant to me. And it took that realization to come to terms with how much, in fact, all of these characters mean to me.
Back when we first meet Brad and Jane, they were discussing the possibility of having a baby. No advancement yet there, as Happy Endings is perhaps pathologically phobic when it comes to shark jumping (no changes... ever). But I'd like to see them start a family — the pair is tailor made to raise a child.
And Penny. The poor, unfortunate Penny has been through so much heartbreak, this year especially what with her self-loathing despair following her breakup with Pete. If not through a relationship, I'd love to see Penny find happiness in some way. Through her job or another creative exploit, perhaps. She deserves it.
To cover the affection I have for Max would take three additional articles. But this harried, self-sabotaging goon, this conniving little brother to the world, what will it take to bring him to a place of self love? A doting boyfriend? A steady job? A shower? Who knows. But I want it.
Yes, I want Dave and Alex back together. I want Jane and Brad to start a family. I want Penny to find something to make her happy. And I want Max to pretty much just do anything — it's all gold. If this is truly the end for Happy Endings, I'm going to miss it. Not just the jokes, as I realize now. But the characters. Through their quips and references and pile-ons, I've really come to love them.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
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This weekend's season finale of 'Happy Endings' might have been the series finale. Were you happy with how ABC wrapped things up for Dave, Alex, Jane, Brad, Penny, and Max?
McKinley High must have a stipulation that all of its Spanish teachers must also have a resume of professional singing. Glee is seeking to fill the seat of a new Spanish teacher with a pop artist who was omnipresent in the 1990s: one Ricky Martin. Martin is in talks to appear on a late-January episode of Glee, wherein he'd participate in two songs. Considering both Martin's potential guest role and the return of Trouty Mouth Sam (who'll be vying for Mercedes' love once again, as reported earlier today), Glee is really pulling out all the stops to make our favorite characters' senior year a noteworthy one. Glee's episode "I Kissed a Girl" airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Fox. -TVLine
All news about Happy Endings instills me with unabashed joy, but this time around, we're bordering on sheer nirvana. The great and powerful Michael McKean is paying a visit to the ABC series, and in the best kind of guest role: asone of the main characters' fathers. So far, we've met the parents of Max, Brad and Penny (the stellar Megan Mullally, in a guest spot almost as good as her recurring role on Parks and Recreation), and now we'll be treated to an introduction to Dave's father, in the form of McKean. And Mullally is back. Dave's dad and Penny's mom will come to town on the same episode - and not by coincidence. Mullally's last appearance on Happy Endings explored her character's divorce, and the newly single woman has taken up a new romance with none other than Dave's father. A bit to wrap your head around, I know. But trust me: this is an unstoppable idea. The episode will air in early '12. Happy Endings airs Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. -TVLine
In new TV developments, we have the Showtime pilot Ray Donovan, which is now set to star Liev Schreiber. The multitalented Scheiber will play a "go-to guy" for the upper echelon of modern day Los Angeles. Schreiber's title character will solve and coverup the sordid problems in which his wealthy socialite clients often find themselves. Ray Donovan is created and will be executive produced by Ann Bidermann (Southland). -THR
Spoof rockers Spinal Tap have reunited for a spectacular performance at the London leg of Live Earth.
The band created for 1984 film This Is Spinal Tap--David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer)--was introduced on stage by their manager Marti DiBergi, played by the film's director Rob Reiner.
He said, "When Al Gore asked me if I would reunite the band for Live Earth I was thrilled. After the film came out Spinal Tap and I fell on tough times. They were unhappy with the film and described it as a bloody pile of crap."
The band was joined onstage by dancing dwarves dressed as monks as they performed classic "Stonehenge" and a new song, "Warmer Than Hell," written especially for the event.
At the end of their set they were joined by musicians from Metallica, the Beastie Boys and other artists performing at the event, to create a supergroup.
Speaking after their performance, McKean--as St. Hubbins--said of the Wembley Stadium venue, "They built a new one for us. Last time we came here it was a dump."
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