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Christopher Guest’s ‘Family Tree’ comes to home video

Chris O'Dowd (wearing red) stars in Season One of 'Family Tree,' released on DVD today by HBO Home Entertainment.

Visiting Brit Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd, wearing red) lands in hot water for his behavior during a Civil War reeenactment in Season One of ‘Family Tree,’ released today on DVD.

In a world of snark, Family Tree – Christopher Guest’s low-key but charming HBO comedy series about a Brit searching for his roots – felt like an oasis when it premiered on the premium channel last May. Irish actor Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) stars in this series – released today on DVD in a two-disc set from HBO Home Entertainment — as sweetly bedfuddled Tom Chadwick, who is feeling a little rudderless at age 30, having recently lost both his wife and his job.
He finds unexpected new purpose when he learns that his late great-aunt Victoria, of whom he has no memories, has left Tom a very old chest packed with family memorabilia. After consulting with his father, Keith (Michael McKean), and a neighbor, Mr. Pfister (Jim Piddock, who co-created and co-wrote the series), Tom becomes obsessed with learning more about his family, embarking on a quest accompanied by his very eccentric sister, Bea (Nina Conti), and best chum Pete (Tom Bennett).
The memorable encounters Tom has along this personal journey, which eventually leads him to the United States, aren’t as gut-bustingly funny as, say, Waiting for Guffman, my personal favorite among Guest’s feature films, but then, Guest and Piddock seem to be pursuing something far more bittersweet here: a celebration of and meditation on family, both the good and the bad.
If you missed this show’s run on HBO last spring, it’s certainly worth catching via this new set, which includes appearances by Fred Willard, Don Lake, Kevin Pollak, Ed Begley Jr. and Guest himself, all of whom excel at Guest’s trademark style, which uses heavily improvised dialogue. The welcome extras in the DVD set include several memorable outtakes from those improvisations, including Pete’s confession of his one-night stand with Bea that got scuttled by her hand puppet, Monk.
Another extra features more extended footage from There Goes the Neighbourhood and Move Along, Please!, two (completely fictional) 1970s Britcoms we fleetingly see Keith enjoying at various points during the series. There’s also a track that includes all the engaging music from the show.
No word yet on whether there will be a Season Two of Family Tree, a co-production between HBO and the BBC, but it’s good to have the lovely moments from Season One preserved on disc in time for holiday gift-giving.
Family Tree DVD

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)