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TV review: ‘Family Tree’

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Chris O’Dowd tries to figure out where he came from in Christopher Guest’s new HBO comedy, Family Tree.

The Details

Family Tree
Three stars
Sundays, 10:30 p.m., HBO

In his movies, Christopher Guest has delved into the subcultures of community theater (Waiting for Guffman), dog shows (Best in Show) and folk music (A Mighty Wind), and his new HBO series Family Tree (co-created with Jim Piddock) finds him exploring another pastime of people with too much time on their hands, genealogy. Chris O’Dowd plays Tom Chadwick, an unemployed Londoner who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend and finds his new purpose in discovering his family history.

Like Guest’s movies, Family Tree is a mockumentary, although it’s more along the lines of shows like Parks and Recreation and Modern Family, in that it’s not really set up like a documentary. The narrative scenes are augmented by occasional character interviews, and all of it is constructed via improv, another Guest staple. Although the four episodes available for review all take place in the U.K., the season’s second half is set to take place in the U.S. and feature more of Guest’s regular collaborators.

Anyone familiar with Guest’s style will recognize a lot about Family Tree, although the humor is gentler than some of the more caustic satire in Guest’s movies. Tom is a likable guy and a bit of a cipher in the first four episodes, and he encounters quirky but generally harmless people in his quest to learn more about his ancestry. There are at least a few big laughs in each episode, but nothing quite as funny as in Guest’s best work.

One of the funniest aspects of the show actually has nothing to do with Tom’s quest at all: Guest shows characters watching snippets of fictional British TV shows that are spot-on parodies of actual British TV, suggesting a whole other (perhaps funnier) series he could have made. After years of mining similar material, Guest isn’t really doing anything new with Family Tree, even with the switch from movies to TV. What was once inventive and surprising has become a minor, if still enjoyable, amusement.

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