TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This Sunday, HBO premieres the new comedy series "Family Tree." It was co-created by Christopher Guest, director of "Best in Show" and other mockumentaries. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: 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, who 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 inscrutable inscription. But Tom takes it to an antique photo expert, who examines it more closely and sets Tom off in a different direction entirely. Listen to the looseness of the dialogue here, one of the most enjoyable aspects of this show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAMILY TREE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As photo expert) To the best - to the best what?
CHRIS O'DOWD: (as Tom) I think it says, "to the best Nancy-do in love."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photo expert) Eh, that's a bit funny.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) I think it's got some homosexual things but I don't - might be called gay chord.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photo expert) To the best...
O'DOWD: (as Tom) Nancy-do...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photo expert) It's not - no, that's Nanki-Poo. Nanki-Poo is a character in "The Mikado." So this isn't a Chinese person; it's a Japanese person. Well, it's not a Japanese person; it's an English person playing a Japanese person. Oh, he's an actor. You know the "The Mikado"?
O'DOWD: (as Tom) I don't.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photo expert) Oh, it's by Gilbert and Sullivan.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) A musical or something?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photo expert) Well, it's kind of a operetta-y(ph) thing, I think they call them. It's Nanki-Poo...
O'DOWD: (as Tom) He's just a tea bag.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photo expert) ...and he's in love with Yum-Yum; Yum Yum is - with somebody else; Ko-Ko, I think.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) Are you drunk right now?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photo expert) Oh, it's absolutely bonkers. You couldn't follow it.
O'DOWD: (as Tom) It's like a foreign "Teletubbies."
BIANCULLI: "Family Tree" is a quiet, consistent treat. It's interesting to learn that Christopher 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, But after that, if this series is renewed, who knows?
Not even Christopher Guest. He's making up "Family Tree" as he goes along. But Christopher Guest has proven, time and again, that he's superb at doing precisely that.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and he teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.