TV review: The godfather of mockumentary takes on the small screen in “Family Tree”

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From the May 9, 2013 edition

Christopher Guest is the godfather of the mockumentary; he has written and/or directed some of the genre’s best: “This is Spinal Tap,” “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show.” With the mockumentary format producing television hits such as “The Office” and “Modern Family,” it’s about time Guest made something for the small screen in the new HBO comedy “Family Tree.”

“Family Tree” is centered upon Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids,” “Girls”), who plays Tom Chadwick, a down-on-his-luck Londoner (by way of Ireland to coincide with O’Dowd’s accent) who begins digging into his family’s past. Tom recently lost his girlfriend and job, so the chest of family curios bequeathed from his deceased great aunt immediately piques curiosity — and gives him something to do.

The cast is rounded out by British actors (Tom Bennett, Nina Conti) and Guest stalwarts such as Michael McKean, who plays Tom’s father. The first four episodes I viewed take place in the U.K. and the next four in the U.S. Expect more actors from Guest’s films when the setting shifts stateside.

Fans of Guest’s work will be pleased with “Family Tree,” hitting many of the same comedic notes using the same scripted storyline with improvised dialog. There are a handful of memorable characters and Tom’s sister Bea (Conti) is strange — even by Guest standards — but fantastic nonetheless. Plus, the setup of Tom encountering various characters on his ancestry quest allows for a legion of weirdos and eccentrics to appear.

While “Family Tree” has some great chuckles, even if things get too wacky here and there, everything rests on Tom’s slumped shoulders. Since Tom is leading us through this myriad of adventures, the audience must care about his personal journey for it to work as an ongoing series.

O’Dowd’s Tom is goofily charming and hilarious in a number of scenes — especially the blind dates his best mate Pete (Bennett) sets him up on — but the character is balanced with earnestness. Thanks to the carefully crafted pathos O’Dowd conveys, we can laugh at and/or with Tom one minute, and be touched by his melancholy the next.