Christopher Guest, co-creator with Jim Piddock of the new HBO comedy series Family Tree, obviously is having a good time making this show — and it's contagious. It's several shows in one, and every element is a self-assured little delight.
Christopher Guest, of course, has made a career — quite an impressive one — out of marching to his own comedy drummer. As an actor, his standout bizarro roles include the evil six-fingered count in The Princess Bride, the clueless heavy-metal musician Nigel in This is Spinal Tap and a series of memorable characters in a brief but inspired stint on Saturday Night Live.
As a writer and director, he amassed a batch of giddily original comedy films — movies with tightly scripted outlines but lots of room for improvisation. If you've seen one, you may have seen them all, because they're habit-forming and they're that good: A Mighty Wind. Waiting for Guffman. Best in Show. For Your Consideration.
And now there's Family Tree, which takes the approach Guest uses in his films and applies it to television. The result is a different flavor of sitcom — as original, in its way, as Curb Your Enthusiasm by Larry David, Louie by Louis C.K. and Extras by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.
Like Extras, Family Tree contains little mini-parodies — of TV series rather than films. Like Curb, it's full of lively, improvised scenes. And like Louie, it seems to be able to go in any direction at all.
Family Tree is about a 30-year-old British man named Tom Chadwick, who inherits an old chest when a relative dies. Its contents lead him on a quest to explore his own family tree — a trail that eventually takes him to America, and a bunch of relatives he never knew existed.
Tom is played by Chris O'Dowd, who's been so good recently in both Bridesmaids and HBO's Girls. The American relatives, in episodes I haven't seen yet, will be played by some of Christopher Guest's usual cohorts, including Fred Willard, Don Lake, Kevin Pollak and Ed Begley Jr.
Meanwhile, in the first four episodes set in Britain, which I have seen, the scene-stealers are led by Michael McKean, another Spinal Tap band mate, as Tom's dad. There's also Nina Conti, who in real life is the daughter of actor Tom Conti, playing Tom's sister; she carries around an ever-present hand puppet, a little monkey with a very bad attitude. She's hilarious — and, like so much of this series, completely unpredictable.
The beauty of Family Tree is that it can lead almost anywhere. Early on, a mysterious vintage photo of Tom's great-grandfather seems to suggest a Chinese heritage because of the way he's dressed and because of its vague inscription. But Tom takes it to an antique-photo expert, who examines it more closely and sets Tom off in a different direction entirely. The looseness of the dialogue in scenes like that is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this show.
Family Tree is a quiet, consistent treat. It's interesting to learn that Guest has both American and British ancestry, as Tom seems to learn he has, but Family Tree isn't at all autobiographical. And that's good, because this eight-episode series is open-ended. Its first four episodes were shot in England, and the next four in the United States. After that, if this series is renewed, who knows? Not even Guest.
He's making up Family Tree as he goes along. But he has proved, time and again, that he's superb at doing precisely that.