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TV Review: Christopher Guest’s Family Tree

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Christopher Guest is the king of the mockumentary style. Writing, directing or starring (sometimes all three) in some of the most memorable movies of the past 20 years (This is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, Best in Show), Guest is a genius of the medium. Most often working with the same group of collaborators, a sort of quirky cinematic repertory company, Guest’s style has always been an improvisational mix of deadpan humor and caricature.

Guest has taken this style to his new HBO comedy series Family Tree. Starring the likable Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids), the series also stars Tom Bennet and Nina Conti. And, of course, Family Tree features appearances by many of Guest regulars, including Michael McKean (as O’Dowd’s dad), Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Don Lake, and more.

Set in the U.K. (although it eventually crosses the pond) Family Tree begins with Tom Chadwick (O’Dowd), a 30-something having a rough time of it. He’s lost his girlfriend and his job. His parents divorced years earlier and young Tom was raised in Ireland with him mum, distanced from his English dad (McKean). He has little sense of identity or family. But then he inherits from his great Aunt Victoria a mysterious box, which contains a lifetime’s worth of mementos; it sets Tom on a quest to learn more about his family and perhaps himself. His sister Bea (Conti), a young woman whose constant companion is a monkey puppet and Tom’s friend Pete (Bennett) are among those who guide and help Tom as he embarks on this quest.

Episode one debuts tonight on HBO. Called “The Box,” it sets the tone for the rest of the series of half-hour episodes. The first item that catches Tom’s interest is an old photograph of a highly decorated military man. Tom’s dad Keith (McKean) believes it is of his own grandfather, and Tom’s great-granddad. Taking the photo to a man who deals in photographic antiquities, Tom learns more about the his great-grandfather. 

Meanwhile, best friend Pete is keen to get Tom back on the dating track and out of the doldrums from his breakup. It’s not exactly what Tom may need at this time in his life.

O’Dowd plays the bewildered and befuddled nice guy as well as anyone on the screen today, and he anchors the series with a sweet sincerity. His performance as Tom provides a great axis around which all the quirkiness revolves. 

Family Tree is an amusing, enjoyable new comedy series from HBO. Less mocking than Guest’s earlier works, it is still full of peculiar characters and odd situations. Those starving for something new from the brilliant mockumentarian (his last offering was the so-so For Your Consideration) will find much to love about Family Tree. But the series is not only for die-hard Christopher Guest fans. Family Tree is a funny, quirky comedy about finding yourself in a very complex world.

In honor of the series premiere, HBO is offering everyone the opportunity to make your own “Awkward Family Portrait.” Family Tree debuts on HBO Sunday, May 12 at 10:30 ET.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.