Christopher Guest wasn’t the first director to develop the mockumentary style. Richard Lester was there before him with “A Hard Day’s Night,” and Woody Allen was there, too, with “Take the Money and Run” and “Zelig.” But Guest humanized the format, warmed it up and used it to deliver a sense of humanity as well as satire. With the likes of “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show,” he invited us to laugh at his characters’ two-bit dreams while being touched by their pathos and innocence. In his hands, they were rare birds.
Without trying, Guest has been hugely influential on TV since the early 2000s, after Ricky Gervais borrowed Guest’s technique for “The Office.” Now shows such as “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family” behave like Guest’s fake verites, complete with hand-held camerawork, direct-to-camera interviews, and an unseen crew. They all tend to avoid the big one-liners and the tight staging of more conventional sitcoms, in favor of casually dropped lines, peripheral facial reactions, and character comedy.
So it’s really about time Guest made his way to series TV, and it’s a great thing that HBO, so respectful of artistic intention, is his home. With the endearing and amusing “Family Tree,” which premieres Sunday night at 10:30, Guest uses loose rhythms and semi-improvised scripting to make us feel as though we’re in the room with yet another bunch of his crazy, sweet, unique characters. This time, instead of a foray into the world of dog competitions or small-town amateur theater, Guest takes us on a narrower trip, one that is easier to live with on a weekly basis, as a lonely young man goes on a far-flung journey in search of his family history.
The eight-episode show, developed by Guest with writer-comic Jim Piddock, features a number of Guest’s regular “company,” including Michael McKean and Fred Willard. But Chris O’Dowd, a newcomer to GuestWorld, is the main attraction, as the guy around whom all the eccentrics show their colors. O’Dowd broke through in “Bridesmaids,” as the courting cop, and he has been impressive in “Girls,” as Jessa’s husband, and in “Friends With Kids” and the miniseries “The Crimson Petal and the White.” He is the perfect calm center of “Family Tree” as Tom Chadwick, a lost, unemployed 30-year-old who inherits a box of his great-grandfather’s belongings. With nothing else to do, having been dumped by his girlfriend six months ago, he investigates each item in the box, including a photograph and a T-shirt, visiting experts who point him toward the facts. He spends the first four episodes looking in England, and the second four in America.
Many of those who help him out along the way are oddballs, including an antique-store owner (played by Piddock) who is out of a Dickens novel, and an old lady whose daughter keeps a piece of glass under her mother’s mouth to make sure she’s still breathing. They are the low-tech people sitting on anecdotes about Tom’s great-grandfather’s days in the theater, or his marriage, or his falling-out with other family members. Tom also gets help from his well-intentioned but excitable and sometimes nonsensical buddy, Pete (Tom Bennett). Pete fixes Tom up with a woman who is obsessed with bones and, well, you really have to see the date scene to appreciate O’Dowd’s bottled-up smirks and impatience as she presses him to pour salt into the depression in her clavicle.
Tom’s father, played by McKean, is a dolt who laughs like a fool at bad TV — TV that, like some of the old clips of Tom’s great-grandfather in a horse costume, have been created for “Family Tree.” My favorite Chadwick, though, is Tom’s sister, Bea, who is played by Nina Conti. Bea is a ventriloquist who puts all of her inappropriate and nasty thoughts into the mouth of her ever-present monkey hand puppet, which she learned to do after an early trauma. To some viewers, the ventriloquism bit might get old after a few episodes; I couldn’t stop loving it, particularly in episode 3, as Bea talks to a couple about entertaining at their child’s birthday party. She’s polite, while her monkey makes all kinds of crude accusations. As with a number of moments in the completely enjoyable “Family Tree,” I’m not sure how the actors kept themselves from laughing.