Christopher Guest plants a lovely ‘Family Tree’ on HBO

Chris O’Dowd (photo by Ray Burmiston, HBO)
You probably know him best from his sidesplitting work on screen in This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman, but Christopher Guest is just as adept at working in a quieter, more affectionate mode in Family Tree, an endearing (but still very funny) eight-part HBO sitcom premiering Sunday night. Guest co-created and co-wrote the series with Jim Piddock and also directs the episodes, which follow a forlorn 30-year-old Brit (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids) who goes in search of his family roots after both his job and his marriage fall apart.
Tom Chadwick (O’Dowd) is still wallowing in the flotsam of his former happiness when he learns that his late great-aunt Victoria – whom he doesn’t remember even meeting – has bequeathed him an old chest of family curios. Rummaging through the items inside, Tom finds an old black-and-white photo that his father, Keith (Michael McKean), tells him is probably Tom’s great-grandfather, Harry Chadwick. With the help of his friendly neighbor Mr. Pfister (Piddock), Tom tracks down an eccentric expert in the field of antique photos, who turns up provocative new information about great-grandpa Harry that sends Tom, accompanied by his sister, Bea (Nina Conti, daughter of actor Tom Conti), and old friend Pete (Tom Bennett), on a quest to explore his roots.
(A sidenote: Bea has her own psychological baggage, always carrying around a monkey hand-puppet she started using to aid communication during therapy, but “Monk” the puppet lately has taken on a malign personality of his own that includes making wildly inappropriate comments on a regular basis).
Tom’s search predictably but delightfully leads him to a colorful variety of characters who happily share lively anecdotes about Harry, some of them thrilling, many of them mortifying, and all of them only feeding Tom’s obsession. HBO sent out the first four episodes for review, all of them set in the UK, but at the end of episode four, Tom receives a phone call from an American cousin (Ed Begley Jr.), who invites him to visit California. Those later American episodes reportedly will include appearances by Fred Willard, Kevin Pollak, Don Lake and other familiar faces from Guest’s hit mockumentaries, which also include A Mighty Wind and Best in Show.
Fans of British television will get an added kick out of the spot-on parodies of the vintage UK TV shows that Keith (McKean) loves watching, including There Goes the Neighbourhood, an obvious send-up of The Kumars at No. 42, which even includes Meera Syal (who played Ummi in Kumars) among its cast members.
Despite all the glorious kooks with which Guest and Piddock surround Tom, Family Tree wouldn’t work without O’Dowd at its heart. There’s a rumpled, befuddled sweetness to the actor that instantly has you pulling for him to find happiness, although he also is gifted at tossing off punchlines in a casual way that makes the joke even funnier.
As anyone who ever has gotten involved in his own genealogical search will tell you, such undertakings are endless, and Guest and Piddock smartly have constructed the show to be open-ended. Now that they’ve established that Tom has roots in both the United Kingdom and America, this show theoretically could run forever. If it does, I won’t complain. Family Tree is a funny and charming oasis in a TV landscape that could use all the wit, warmth and intelligence it can get. I hope HBO, and viewers, will nurture it.
Chris O’Dowd and Christopher Guest (from left; photo by Suzanne Tenner, HBO)

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