Watch “A Family Tree,” Jonathan Demme’s 1980s Sitcom Episode with David Byrne & Rosanna Arquette

It comes as some­thing of a sur­prise to real­ize that the film­mak­er Jonathan Demme, who died last week, nev­er made a tele­vi­sion series of his own. He did, in addi­tion to fea­tures like Some­thing Wild and The Silence of the Lambs and doc­u­men­taries like Stop Mak­ing Sense, direct a few episodes of TV shows as var­ied as Sat­ur­day Night Live and Enlight­ened. But we nev­er got to see a full-on cre­at­ed-by-Demme series that, in this long Gold­en Age of Tele­vi­sion in which we live, could sure­ly have show­cased in an even deep­er way his much-praised inter­est in and empa­thy for human­i­ty. But we can get a sense of how one might have played from “A Fam­i­ly Tree,” the Rosan­na Arquette-star­ring sit­com episode he made in 1987 for the PBS prime-time com­e­dy series Try­ing Times.

Demme, in the words of The New York­er’s Dan Piepen­bring, “direct­ed an ensem­ble com­e­dy about CB-radio enthu­si­asts, a doc­u­men­tary on an Epis­co­palian min­is­ter, and the only episode of Colum­bo to traf­fic in the dra­ma of haute cui­sine. But nev­er did he roam far­ther afield than he does in ‘A Fam­i­ly Tree,’ a pitch-black anti-sit­com about an anx­ious young woman whose desire to belong leads her — per­haps in a nod to Stop Mak­ing Sense — to lit­er­al­ly burn down the house. Fit­ting­ly, David Byrne him­self is there to watch the flames go up, enjoy­ing an impe­ri­ous turn as a cig­ar-puff­ing, pie-hid­ing, rep­tile-obsessed broth­er-in-law.” And who could resist, hav­ing read a descrip­tion like that, giv­ing the episode a watch on Youtube, avail­able there in three parts (watch them above and below)?

The pro­duc­tion cer­tain­ly stood out from the Amer­i­can tele­vi­su­al land­scape of the time. The Chica­go Tri­bune’s TV crit­ic Clif­ford Per­ry, after trash­ing the then-new Full House, described Dem­me’s episode of Try­ing Times, the series’ pre­miere, as “built upon sick humor and a per­va­sive nas­ti­ness,” high­light­ing “an appeal­ing­ly vul­ner­a­ble per­for­mance by Arquette as the harassed out­sider who suf­fers through cig­ar smoke, belch­ing, home­made apple­jack, intra­mur­al bick­er­ing and a bar­rage of insults — as well as her own inep­ti­tude, which results in a series of house­hold dis­as­ters. Fine sup­port is giv­en by Hope Lange as the shrewish moth­er, Robert Ridge­ly as the just-fired father,” and par­tic­u­lar­ly Byrne “as the acer­bic yet bor­ing broth­er-in-law-to-be.”

Ulti­mate­ly, Per­ry judged “A Fam­i­ly Tree” as a “schiz­o­phrenic half-hour” that “veers between the far­ci­cal and the sur­re­al,” which pre­sum­ably was­n’t intend­ed as a straight­for­ward com­pli­ment. Today, how­ev­er, its laugh track-free tone of inti­mate unease and real­ism unapolo­get­i­cal­ly tinged with the bizarre would no doubt win it a con­sid­er­able fol­low­ing. The trib­utes paid to Demme have described him as a mak­er of films well root­ed in their eras and set­tings, but now we know he could make tele­vi­sion thir­ty years ahead of its time as well.

via The New York­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Jonathan Demme Put Human­i­ty Into His Films: From The Silence of the Lambs to Stop Mak­ing Sense

Jonathan Demme Nar­rates I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!!, a Short Film About the Coun­ter­cul­ture Car­toon Reid Flem­ing

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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