Television of the absurd may sound like a patently redundant phrase, but stuffy old public TV takes a happy step in just that direction tonight with "A Family Tree," first of six half-hour comedies airing under the umbrella title "Trying Times."
"Family Tree" stars the beguilingly neurotic Rosanna Arquette as a young woman named Kara Dimly who dreads that first momentous meeting with the family of her husband-to-be, then discovers to her horror that even her lowest expectations were too high. Disaster follows disaster with a Dadaesque vengeance.
The film, directed by Jonathan Demme ("Melvin and Howard," "Something Wild"), airs at 7 on Channel 26. The Maryland Public TV stations will show it tomorrow night at 11. This is odd since the time slot chosen by PBS for the show is the far more advantageous and appropriate Monday night at 10.
By blunderingly consigning this show to an early-evening crypt, WETA has made as curious a programming move as Channel 20's daft decision to hide the new and opulent "Star Trek" series Saturday nights at 6. In many markets, it is shown in prime time.
A considered analysis: just plain dumb.
"Family Tree" is endearingly tilted and skewed, a study in group pixilation that plays a bit like an updated, Freudianized "You Can't Take It With You." The in-laws-to-be whom Kara meets at their home dangle precariously from the ends of their ropes, and Kara's arrival is the catalyst that sets them, as it were, free.
"If only," she says in prefatory retrospect, "I had stayed away from the large lemon pie." The saddest words of mice and men, and women!
Members of the family are in various stages of advanced and terminal addlepation. Mom, played by the persistently wonderful Hope Lange, is restless and testy, although her anniversary trip to Hawaii will help, except that she doesn't know the trip has been canceled because Dad (Robert Ridgely) has just been fired after 35 years with an insurance company.
Weirdest by far is Byron, who married into the clan and is played by David Byrne of Talking Heads. His idea of after-dinner conversation is, "Ask me: What's the most poisonous snake in the world?" Old Grandpa Buckshot (John Stedman) clears the air in the living room with "Okay everybody, shut up," as he hauls out a jug of home-brewed hootch.
The young man whom Kara plans to marry has both feet on the ground, which is very convenient once the house burns down. But we get ahead of ourselves. He is played with just the right bemusement by John Stockwell, an actor clearly more intelligent than many of the teen-age movies in which he's appeared.
Playwright Beth Henley and comic Budge Threlkeld wrote the script, which is antic and cuckoo without becoming self-consciously precious -- the way, say, Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" does. Perhaps she is best taken, and given, in small doses, and will eventually end up writing "Golden Girls" scripts, which would be a perfectly honorable way for her to go. Also, she'd make beaucoup teledollars.
Demme is the ideal director for this kind of thing, creating another of his uniquely piquant Demme-mondes. He uses Bernard Herrmann's music for "Psycho" with witty mischievousness. He is a scamp for all seasons.
Future installments in this comedy anthology will feature performances by Teri Garr, Catherine O'Hara, abstract comedian Steven Wright and Candice Bergen, and scripts by Christopher Durang, Spalding Gray, Bernard Slade and Wendy Wasserstein. "Trying Times" has been produced for PBS by Jon S. Denny, and at first encounter it seems like just the kind of thing public television needs.
Among others, of course.
'Conspiracy of Love' The core is all wrong but the details are sweet and telling in "Conspiracy of Love," the "CBS Sunday Night Movie" at 9 on Channel 9. One of the nicest moments in the film, which was directed by Noel Black, has Robert Young as an elderly barber ascending a ramp at Wrigley field and stopping in his tracks the moment he hears strains of the "Star-Spangled Banner" echoing from inside the park.
Barry Morrow's script, though, is a hit-and-miss affair that tells the moderately implausible story of a Chicago grandfather's battle to regain visitation rights to his granddaughter after the child's mother has not very convincingly decided to end them. It's the kind of pivotal conflict that could probably have been solved with a simple phone call, saving everyone a lot of trouble.
Instead, gramps ends up in court, making a speech on behalf of grampses and grammies everywhere, and the old man and the child reunite at the corner barbershop soon to be turned into a chic boutique by gentrifying effetists. This film abounds in cross purposes.
Young is the picture of dignity and authority as grandpa, but Elizabeth Wilson, as his wife, is like the bloke who tells you a joke and then does the laughing for you. Glynnis O'Connor, beautiful as ever, can't make much dramatic sense of the embittered and abandoned mother.
And worst of all, the formerly cute Drew Barrymore, now something of a smug little pudge, gives a dispiritingly mechanical performance as the contested grandchild.
Black, who made the cult classic "Pretty Poison," is a director with a clean, sharp touch. When gramps tries to get a loan from the bank to save his barbershop, grandma gives him some pastries as a present for the loan officer. Times have changed; the loan officer doesn't want a pastry. The sequence is enhanced by Black's deft approach.
At least one scene, in which Young gives a young blond toddler his first haircut, seems to include a considerable amount of ad-libbed dialogue. Young is right on the money here, and throughout the film. He evokes loving memories of grandpas from time immemorial, including, chances are, your own.