Christopher Guest’s most familiar movies—This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best In Show, A Mighty Wind—are about groups of people with a shared passion, or obsession. His new series for HBO, Family Tree (debuting Sunday), focuses on one man, not particularly passionate, who comes across an obsession (researching his genealogy) by accident. Where those movies are parodic or sharp-edged in their humor, Family Tree is more gently funny, even wistful–but it also says that understanding where you come from can be the oddest pursuit of all.
Family Tree centers on Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd), a young Irish-British man who comes into a batch of old family heirlooms while he’s in a funk over losing a job and a serious girlfriend. Almost lackadaisically at first, Tom begins to wonder who the tchotchkes belong to. Soon, with the aid of cheerfully dim school chum Pete (Tom Bennett), Tom has something his aimless life needs—a quest.
That quest provides the loose shape to the narrative; each artifact Tom looks into or comes across on his travels–a photograph, an old costume–leads to another station on his family’s journey, along with some false leads and comically disappointing answers. And this provides some space for more traditionally Guestian eccentricities, as the search takes Tom to a family farm and into the world of early-20th-century fringe theater.
But what gives Family Tree its warm, rumpled, Anglo-Irish soul are the hints at why Tom might want to forge some family connections, even with relatives who are long-dead. Tom’s family isn’t dysfunctional, but it’s also only loosely functional; his father (Michael McKean) his an amiable but unemotive guy whose idea of bonding is watching terrible ’70s English sitcoms. (Another place where Guest and co-writer Jim Piddock get to take satiric license.)
Tom’s parents divorced when he was nine; he went to Ireland with his mother, while his sister stayed in London with their dad. As he says sheepishly to the mockumentary camera, “I don’t know why that decision was made, or…” That trailing off “or…” says it all, about Tom’s passive nature, his family’s unspoken disconnection, the hole he wants to fill with old heirloom boxing gloves. If he can figure out why his ancestors made the choices they did—this job, this mate, this geographical move—maybe he can explain himself.
Even the broader supporting characters have bittersweet notes. Tom’s sister, Bea (Nina Conti), is a self-taught ventriloquist who since childhood permanently carries a monkey, whom she uses to voice her darker, ruder thoughts, at the advice of a therapist. It’s a funny gag, but with a touch of sadness; like Tom with his family treasures or their Dad with his sitcoms, she needs an interface to make a connection with other people.
Over the first four episodes, Family Tree doesn’t have the gut-busting, excruciatingly funny moments of Guest’s movies—no Stonehenge here—but it adds a warmth to the usual pathos of his characters, and O’Dowd’s hangdog charm is a good match for the story. (The following four episodes of the season, which HBO says take Tom’s genealogical research to America, will introduce some familiar Guest players, and it will be interesting to see if the tone changes as well.) It may not be community theater or folk music, but in its own way Tom’s is also a rewardingly eccentric obsession: asking, literally, why am I here?