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Christopher Guest’s new HBO sitcom “Family Tree” can be as funny as Christopher Guest’s better movies, and it’s hard to heap a lot stronger praise than that.
Guest, who co-wrote (as starred as Nigel Tufnel in) “This Is Spinal Tap” before he went on to co-write and direct the similarly improvisational big-screen comedies “Waiting For Guffman,” “Best In Show,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration,” writes, directs and co-stars in this tale of a man researching his genealogy.
“Tree” stars Chris O’Dowd (who played love interest to Jemima Kirk and Kristen Wiig in “Girls” and “Bridesmaids,” respectively) as Londoner Tom Chadwick, who has recently lost his job and girlfriend and seems compelled to look into his ancestry mostly to fill his days.
Dowd gets support from much of Guest’s usual movie repertory company (Guest himself, as well as Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr., Bob Balaban, Don Lake, and so on), though we don’t see most of it until the second half of the season takes him to America.
The series’ ace in the hole is a Guest newcomer, ventriloquist-comedian Nina Conti (daughter of the great British actor Tom Conti). She plays Tom’s sister Bea, who can no longer separate herself from the monkey-puppet she initially acquired in psychotherapy. The puppet is hilariously rude, spitting out pithy truths Bea would never claim as her own.
Tom’s research begins when a great aunt leaves him a sizeable chest crammed with a strange assortment of memorabilia and other objects (including, a bit sadly, a mystery object turns out to be an ancient dildo).
The sitcom – shot much like Guest’s big-screen mockumentaries and imitators like “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family” -- meanders agreeably; many of its elements have little to do with Tom’s quest to enhance his identity.
Highly guffaw-inducing in the early going are heterosexual Tom’s reactions to a pair of stunningly beautiful women he must be convinced to date.
And I laughed hardest, possibly, at the invention one woman created for her elderly mom. Comedy this surprising, inspired and dark is rare enough on a screen of any size.
Guest has a pretty interesting family tree himself. Though born in New York, he’s what the folks in “Game of Thrones” would call “high-born.” Upon his father’s death in 1996 he became the Fifth Baron Haden-Guest, of Saling in the County of Essex. “Family Tree” was inspired by some of the stuff he inherited from his baron dad.
And it bears reminding that this is far from Guest’s first TV project. He was a “primetime player” alongside fellow “National Lampoon Radio Hour” vets Bill Murray and Brian-Doyle Murray on ABC’s “Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell,” appeared on “All in the Family” with Rob Reiner and “Laverne & Shirley” with Michael McKean, and, most famously, served as a writer-performer on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” during its 1984-85 season. One shouldn’t be too surprised if he seems equally adept in this medium.
... his balance of heartfelt emotion and absolute lunacy is probably the only way a Guest project could work as an ongoing series. As much as I love “Guffman” a show built around Corky St. Clair would get old very quickly. Tom Chadwick is a man with a fixation that’s both reasonable and relatable, and he becomes our tour guide to the familiar, funny Christopher Guest worldview. …
... As in Mr. Guest’s films, its story is less important than the presentation of a gallery of eccentrics, ranging from mildly odd to completely loony. Here the narrative thread is even more slender — there’s no community play (“Waiting for Guffman”) or memorial concert (“A Mighty Wind”) — to lend structure. …
... In the wonderful "Family Tree," hangdog Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids," "The IT Crowd"), finding his life stalled after losing a girlfriend and a job in short order, goes in search of his roots and relatives. …
Just as "A Mighty Wind" and "Waiting for Guffman" aren't like traditional movies, "Family Tree" isn't like traditional sitcoms, in that there isn't a traditional setup-punch-line structure to it. It does evoke comedies such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Arrested Development," though, where the humor is more incremental, character-based and cumulative. …
… Guest is still an expert at populating the margins of his mockumentaries with unforgettable characters. ... When Monk speaks, people listen — as well they should. He’s easily the best in show.
... Sunday's premiere is pretty light on laughs. A couple of moments inspire guffaws but they are few and far between. The show's second episode offers more humor. …
... As with a number of moments in the completely enjoyable “Family Tree,” I’m not sure how the actors kept themselves from laughing. …
... The problem, for the moment, is that so far the only people who really register are the people already in Tom's life when his quest began, which makes his search seem pointless. While this may change as the show progresses, for now, Tom's encounters come across as nothing more than comedy routines — fun, but quickly forgotten. …
... a quirky and hilarious gem …
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