Long before there was The Office, or Modern Family or Parks and Recreation or Trailer Park Boys or any of the recent wave of TV comedies that employ a mock-documentary format to allow their characters to directly address the camera, there was Christopher Guest.
Guest, an American-born actor/writer/musician with a British-aristocratic pedigree (by lineage, his UN-diplomat father was the 4th Baron Haden-Guest), is best known as the creator of a unique big-screen comedy sub-genre that includes This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006).
In these films, Guest -- who has been married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis since 1984 -- and a reliable repertory company create semi-improvised comedies in which an unseen documentary film crew is looking in on the lives of characters who reside on the fringes of society, ranging from low-level rock 'n' rollers to small-town thespians to dog-show enthusiasts to long-forgotten folkies.
Guest's mock-documentary work -- which isn't for everyone, but is viewed as uniformly brilliant by those who get his style of humour -- laid the groundwork that allow TV producers to adapt the format for the small screen.
And now, nearly 30 years after Spinal Tap turned the laugh-meter "up to 11," Guest is trying his hand at making a faux-documentary project for television.
It is, as one might expect, an exercise in quietly hilarious wonder.
Family Tree, which premi®res Sunday on HBO Canada (check listings for times), is an eight-part comedy series that follows a down-on-his-luck Englishman named Tom Chadwick (Bridesmaids' Chris O'Dowd) who inherits a chest filled with trinkets and memories from his great aunt and is inspired to start exploring his family's lineage.
Thirty-year-old Tom has recently lost his job and been dumped by his girlfriend, so he's got a lot of time on his hands. He isn't inclined to adopt the life of a shut-in, as his classic-sitcom-obsessed father, Keith (Michael McKean), has, so when he's handed the dusty trunk bequeathed to him by his distant relative, he seizes the opportunity to give his life, at least for a while, some semblance of a sense of purpose.
The genealogy theme, as it turns out, is the perfect vehicle for Guest's foray into TV-series comedy. Each item Tom extracts from the box has a story behind it and serves as justification for him to set out on a journey that introduces him to a new set of offbeat Chadwick relations.
In the series opener, Tom examines an old photo of an imposing gentleman in full military dress. His head is filled with visions of wartime heroics by his great-great-grandfather, but his friendly neighbour and historian, Mr. Pfister (series co-creator Jim Piddock), quickly informs him that the man in the photo is not a Chadwick. The person who took the photo, however, was. More searching reveals to Tom that his photo-snapping forebear was, in fact, a moderately successful actor for whom portraiture was an income-supplementing sideline.
The longer he follows this particular branch of the family tree, the more absurd and bizarre the stories become -- the actor in question, Tom is told when he traces the story to a small-town theatre, was quite celebrated in his day for his work as the nether end of a popular pantomime horse.
The story inspires Tom to purchase the original costume from the theatre's manager so he, with the help of best friend Pete (Tom Bennett), can follow in his great-great-grandfather's hoofsteps by competing in a somewhat storied pantomime-horse derby.
It's as strange as it sounds. And it's this subtle but razor-sharp style of humour that is infused into all four of the episodes of Family Tree provided for preview.
O'Dowd, a new entry in the Guest book of favoured players, is laid-back and likable in the series' central role. And around him, the supporting cast is filled with familiar mock-doc faces, starting with McKean and including Ed Begley Jr., Fred Willard, Don Lake, Bob Balaban and, of course, Guest himself.
Also making a huge contribution is comedian/ventriloquist Nina Conti, who plays Tom's sister, Bea, who was traumatized in childhood when she witnessed an indecent act by a puffin during a seaside vacation. Her therapist recommended that she talk out her issues with the aid of a hand puppet; 30 years later, she's still carrying a fuzzy-monkey companion but is unable to control what comes out of the puppet's foul mouth.
With only eight episodes in its current order, it's safe to say that Family Tree will only allow Tom Chadwick to make the most meagre beginning of his genealogical quest. Here's hoping HBO sees fit to allow this worthy effort to put down roots in its schedule for a much longer stay.
You can view a trailer for Family Tree here: http://wfp.to/5Kr
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