It's been seven long years since we last entered the world of Christopher Guest, the brilliant satirist/mockumentarian behind the comedy masterpieces Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. (And the uneven A Mighty Wind and the scaldingly angry For Your Consideration.) I must say it looks a little different! For one thing, his new HBO show Family Tree is set (so far) in England, where the humor is as gray and autumnal as the weather. It's a decidedly gentler place than the acrid Hollywood of Consideration, and not nearly as wacky as Guffman's Blaine, Missouri. But that's OK. While Family Tree mostly registers at a low-key murmur, it's nonetheless a warm and funny little oddity worth spending some time with.
I say that it's worth some time because it takes a couple episodes to fall into its peculiar, easygoing rhythm. The series starts simply: Tom Chadwick (Chris O'Dowd), a 30s-ish bloke living in London, is summoned to his father's house with his sister Bea (Nina Conti) and informed that a barely remembered great aunt has died and left them an inheritance. Alas it's not riches as they initially hope, it's simply a big box of knickknacks and curios from the old days. Bea and her dad shrug their shoulders and say oh well, but Tom, jobless and reeling from a bad breakup, takes an interest in the items; they give him a mission and a purpose. This sets off the quest of the series, which is to explore the Chadwick clan and figure out its mundane little mysteries. That's the whole premise of the show, lo-fi and unassuming. Don't expect a thrill-fest or a joke-a-second kind of a thing here. Working in a particularly British style — subtler, more patient — Guest has made a rich comedy of small indignities and disappointments.
O'Dowd, a popular Irish actor who has enjoyed a bit of American success in the past few years (most notably playing Kristen Wiig's love interest in Bridesmaids), has a shambling, shaggy grace about him, charmingly projecting a weary resignation that gives way to humor that's somehow both rueful and a little upbeat. He's a winning sadsack, a good guy with bad luck, like so many aimless men out there these days. As the female half of the Chadwick siblings, Conti represents one of the show's strangest quirks. She's a professional ventriloquist and her monkey puppet, Monk, has been worked into the fabric of the show. Essentially, Bea began using Monk as a way to express herself as a child and has grown attached over the years. Bea is polite enough, but Monk tells it like he sees it, decorum be damned. There are some good, weird exchanges between the two in the episodes I've seen, but I'm still not sure it quite works as a concept. It chafes against the larger show's more down-to-earth sensibility.
Not that the show is without silliness. This is still Christopher Guest, after all. In two downright hysterical date scenes, Tom sits and stares incredulously as each date proves awfuler and awfuler by the second. In another winning sequence, Tom learns that his grandfather was a stage performer, the details of his career proving progressively more ridiculous as Tom investigates. There are plenty of wacky jokes and amiably goofy bits like this, dashes of the spoofiness that defined Guests's early career. Longtime Guest player Michael McKean plays Tom and Bea's father, a genial enough guy who loves nothing more than to sit back and watch DVDs of his favorite old corny BBC sitcoms. Those are invented and filmed for the show, and Guest clearly has a good time tweaking a particular form of bad British humor. Really, Family Tree so far plays as an exacting, but soft, satire of British culture, each episode dealing with a different little corner of society. An impending trip to America might muddy that thesis a bit, but there is something very specific about the show's British identity; it's teasing, but loving.
I like the coziness of Family Tree and the episodic structure that allows likable characters to explore different scenery each week. I suspect some will find the show too calm and quiet on the whole, but if anyone can make it through Tom's second date scene without at least one barking laugh, they might not be human. With occasional spikes of Guest's trademark madcappery punctuating its otherwise understated ramble, Family Tree is a sly, curious little success. Neither wholly naive nor ironic, it feels a lot like regular life. Just with a monkey puppet and a two-man horse costume thrown in for good measure.