I have long been a fan of the improv-heavy work of Christopher Guest, who as writer, director and actor has given us Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration, Best in Show and other works. The movies have storylines but they are at their best when the characters are set free to talk their way into ever more comical absurdity — while somehow remaining real and even touching.
It takes a particular kind of actor to pull that off, and Guest has relied on an informal repertory company including the likes of Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, Jane Lynch and Northeast Ohio’s own Fred Willard. Another regular player has been Jim Piddock, and he along with Guest created Family Tree, a comedy series premiering at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO. The series has its marvelous moments, whether in an extended bit about costume horses or a short monologue about black holes. But over the first four episodes (out of eight made), the production feels a bit overstretched compared with the relative conciseness of Guest’s movies.
Family Tree stars Chris O’Dowd — Kristen Wiig’s policeman beau in Bridesmaids and Thomas-John in Girls — as Tom Chadwick, a 30-year-old Brit who is adrift — jobless and recently dumped by his girlfriend. When his great aunt dies, Tom inherits a chest full of memorabilia, most of it unrecognizable to him. He is especially taken by a photograph of an old-time military man who may have been his great-grandfather. With plenty of time on his hands, Tom begins researching the photo — and, later, other objects in the chest. That research provides new views of his family, and of the strange turns that lives can take. Indeed, Guest has said the show will make a big leap after those first four telecasts, with Tom going to the U.S. for the next four shows.
Like previous Guest productions, Family Tree is shot documentary-style, mingling interviews with the characters and scenes from Tom’s search and other moments. (He is also trying to get into the dating world.) O’Dowd, new to Guest’s work but not to improv, is very good at seeming vulnerable and lost, moving forward with his life because he really can’t think of anything else to do. The remaining cast — including McKean as Tom’s father and Nina Conti as his sister — is also fine. I laughed here and there, though not as much as I had hoped.
The story seemed to dry up as it went along. But Guest’s work has a way of sneaking into your head, settling down and becoming more and more likable the longer it stays. Maybe Family Tree just needs to settle in.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.