The best genealogy TV show you never watched: HBO's Family Tree

We all know that genealogy and family history has pervaded pop culture...and is even considered a television genre now, thanks to tv shows such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Genealogy Roadshow and Finding Your Roots. (Check out this interesting article by Megan Smolenyak here.)

I love when my two great loves - media and genealogy - combine!

For the most part, that genre falls into the reality tv category - real life people tracing their lineages, trying to find out more about their heritage, looking for and looking up real ancestors. But there was a little show that aired on HBO for one season in 2013 that took family history into the scripted television realm - hilariously, poignantly and accurately.

Family Tree was created by improv script genius Christopher Guest, of Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman fame. The show starred Chris O'Dowd as Tom Chadwick, a down-on-his-luck Irishman who is left a trunkful of seemingly meaningless photos, trinkets and knickknacks by his recently deceased aunt. The show followed his journey as he discovers that these items actually paint a picture of the day-to-day lives of people in his family tree. Using these family heirlooms as clues, he travels around England and even all the way to America tracking down not just family members but their stories, meeting people whose lives were touched by his family members, and finding out not just more about his heritage but about himself in the process.

Much like in Guest's other works, the actors in Family Tree are given a lot of wiggle room to riff and improvise their lines and scenes, and if you're a fan of Guest's movies, look for a lot of his regularly cast actors to pop up in various episodes of this show. I happen to like Guest's style - it makes this kind of scripted show feel more "real." I've been a huge fan of Chris O'Dowd since his days on The IT Crowd, long before he wooed Kristen Wiig and female audience members in Bridesmaids. But what I really love about Family Tree is the authenticity of Tom's family history journey. He finds some items from a bygone era in a box. In order to find out more about the people these items belonged to, he asks questions from older family members. For every answer he gets about his family, five more questions pop up. He doesn't just sit on his computer and Google the information he needs - these items take him on a physical journey. It reminds me so much of going through the seemingly meaningless items my grandfather collected in his basement - clipped obituaries, schoolgirl autograph books, old letters, his father's dayplanner, tons of old photographs with NO NAMES written on the backs (grr!!). They all gave glimpses into the everyday lives of people in my family, and while some gave me answers and most raised so many more questions.

I loved Family Tree - I was sorry it lasted only one season, but it was an excellent season. If you never saw it, check it out. If you did watch it, watch it again - you can see the first episode on Amazon for free (with commercials, but still - WOO HOO!). If it draws you in, and I hope it does, you can buy the rest of the season on DVD or digitally.


Did you watch this show when it aired? What did you think of it? Does genealogy work as a scripted show premise? Let me know in the comments below!