Christopher Guest is famous for writing, directing and appearing in many 'mockumentaries'; most famously rock spoof This is Spinal Tap, but also Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, Waiting for Guffman, et al. His work was a sizeable influence on Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office, so in a roundabout way he's responsible for the faux-documentary style that's dominated small-screen comedy since the turn-of-the-millennium. Surprisingly, HBO's Family Tree marks his first TV project in an estimable career, working with Jim Piddock (who also appears as Mr Pfister), and it mixes many of the things you associate with Guest both personally and creatively.
Guest's half-British and the fifth Baron of Saling in Essex, so given his strong associations with the UK, it's fitting that Family Tree has such a strong English component. It tells the story of Tom Chadwick (Chris O'Dowd), an unremarkable Irishman living in London, who inherits a box of artefacts from a great aunt after she passes away. In this opening episode he decides to investigate a photograph of a Victorian gentlemen who could be his great-grandfather, with the help of perky best-friend Pete Stupples (Tom Bennett), and over the course of the show he'll meet many weird and wonderful relatives he never knew he had.
It's a lovely idea for a comedy and O'Dowd is excellent in the role of Tom; which is by no means a stretch for him as an actor, but nobody does quiet befuddlement quite like O'Dowd. There's a great scene where Tom's on a date with a pretty young woman who accidentally reveals she thinks dinosaurs still exist, that becomes hilarious purely because of O'Dowd's response to such idiocy: politely agreeing with her preposterous views to keep the dinner date civil.
Expert casting is the key to Family Tree. Regular cohort Michael McKean appears as Tom's couch potato dad Keith, and real-life ventriloquist Nina Conti transplants her stage act with simian puppet 'Monk' to play Tom's sister Bea—a woman who's learned to filter her private thoughts through the cheeky chimp. She's already proven to be the highlight of the show in most American critic's minds, but it'll be interesting to see what British audiences make of Bea and her cynical monkey sidekick—because Nina's act isn't anything new to us, so it loses that sense of first discovery. But she is very good, and at least she's found a fresh platform for an act she's been peddling since winning the BBC New Comedy Awards in 2002.
Overall, this premier episode is something of an appetiser, but there's clear potential here for something memorably eccentric and enjoyable. Guest has a good sense of British humour and people (a running joke involving spoofs of UK shows felt quite accurate), and even McKean's accent was largely convincing. More importantly, I love the simply concept of Family Tree because it opens up all kinds of doors as Tom explores his eccentric family's genealogy, and most likely learns something about himself and his place in the world along the way.
written by Christopher Guest & Jim Piddock / directed by Christopher Guest / 12 May 2013 / HBO