Grand­daddy of the mock doc takes to TV

Christopher Guest uses ge­neaol­ogy as start­ing point for com­edy se­ries

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - BRAD OSWALD

LONG be­fore there was The Of­fice, or Mod­ern Fam­ily or Parks and Recre­ation or Trailer Park Boys or any of the re­cent wave of TV come­dies that em­ploy a mock­doc­u­men­tary for­mat to al­low their char­ac­ters to di­rectly ad­dress the cam­era, there was Christopher Guest.

Guest, an Amer­i­can-born ac­tor/ writer/mu­si­cian with a Bri­tisharis­to­cratic pedi­gree (by lin­eage, his UN-diplo­mat fa­ther was the 4th Baron HadenGuest), is best known as the cre­ator of a unique big-screen com­edy sub-genre that in­cludes This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Wait­ing for Guff­man (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Con­sid­er­a­tion (2006).

In th­ese films, Guest — who has been mar­ried to ac­tress Jamie Lee Cur­tis since 1984 — and a re­li­able reper­tory com­pany cre­ate semi-im­pro­vised come­dies in which an un­seen doc­u­men­tary film crew is look­ing in on the lives of char­ac­ters who re­side on the fringes of so­ci­ety, rang­ing from low-level rock ’n’ rollers to small-town thes­pi­ans to dog-show en­thu­si­asts to long-for­got­ten folkies.

Guest’s mock-doc­u­men­tary work — which isn’t for ev­ery­one, but is viewed as uni­formly bril­liant by those who get his style of hu­mour — laid the ground­work that al­low TV pro­duc­ers to adapt the for­mat for the small screen.

And now, nearly 30 years af­ter Spinal Tap turned the laugh-me­ter “up to 11,” Guest is try­ing his hand at mak­ing a faux-doc­u­men­tary pro­ject for tele­vi­sion.

It is, as one might ex­pect, an ex­er­cise in qui­etly hi­lar­i­ous won­der.

Fam­ily Tree, which pre­mières Sun­day on HBO Canada (check list­ings for times), is an eight-part com­edy se­ries that fol­lows a down-on-his-luck English­man named Tom Chad­wick

Star­ring Chris O’Dowd, Nina Conti and Michael McKean Sun­day, check list­ings for time HBO Canada

out of five ( Brides­maids’ Chris O’Dowd) who in­her­its a chest filled with trin­kets and mem­o­ries from his great aunt and is in­spired to start ex­plor­ing his fam­ily’s lin­eage.

Thirty-year-old Tom has re­cently lost his job and been dumped by his girl­friend, so he’s got a lot of time on his hands. He isn’t in­clined to adopt the life of a shut-in, as his clas­sic­sit­com-ob­sessed fa­ther, Keith (Michael McKean), has, so when he’s handed the dusty trunk be­queathed to him by his dis­tant rel­a­tive, he seizes the op­por­tu­nity to give his life, at least for a while, some sem­blance of a sense of pur­pose.

The ge­neal­ogy theme, as it turns out, is the per­fect ve­hi­cle for Guest’s foray into TV-se­ries com­edy. Each item Tom ex­tracts from the box has a story be­hind it and serves as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for him to set out on a jour­ney that in­tro­duces him to a new set of off­beat Chad­wick re­la­tions.

In the se­ries opener, Tom ex­am­ines an old photo of an im­pos­ing gen­tle­man in full mil­i­tary dress. His head is filled with vi­sions of wartime hero­ics by his great-great-grand­fa­ther, but his friendly neigh­bour and his­to­rian, Mr. Pfis­ter (se­ries co-cre­ator Jim Pid­dock), quickly in­forms him that the man in the photo is not a Chad­wick. The per­son who took the photo, how­ever, was. More search­ing re­veals to Tom that his photo-snap­ping fore­bear was, in fact, a mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful ac­tor for whom por­trai­ture was an in­come-sup­ple­ment­ing side­line.

The longer he fol­lows this par­tic­u­lar branch of the fam­ily tree, the more ab­surd and bizarre the sto­ries be­come — the ac­tor in ques­tion, Tom is told when he traces the story to a small­town theatre, was quite cel­e­brated in his day for his work as the nether end of a pop­u­lar pan­tomime horse.

The story in­spires Tom to pur­chase the orig­i­nal cos­tume from the theatre’s man­ager so he, with the help of best friend Pete (Tom Ben­nett), can fol­low in his great-great-grand­fa­ther’s hoof­steps by com­pet­ing in a some­what sto­ried pan­tomime-horse derby.

It’s as strange as it sounds. And it’s this sub­tle but ra­zor-sharp style of hu­mour that is in­fused into all four of the episodes of Fam­ily Tree pro­vided for preview.

O’Dowd, a new en­try in the Guest book of favoured play­ers, is laid-back and lik­able in the se­ries’ cen­tral role. And around him, the sup­port­ing cast is filled with fa­mil­iar mock-doc faces, start­ing with McKean and in­clud­ing Ed Be­g­ley Jr., Fred Wil­lard, Don Lake, Bob Bal­a­ban and, of course, Guest him­self.

Also mak­ing a huge con­tri­bu­tion is co­me­dian/ven­tril­o­quist Nina Conti, who plays Tom’s sis­ter, Bea, who was trau­ma­tized in child­hood when she wit­nessed an in­de­cent act by a puffin dur­ing a sea­side va­ca­tion. Her ther­a­pist rec­om­mended that she talk out her is­sues with the aid of a hand pup­pet; 30 years later, she’s still car­ry­ing a fuzzy-mon­key com­pan­ion but is un­able to con­trol what comes out of the pup­pet’s foul mouth.

With only eight episodes in its cur­rent or­der, it’s safe to say that Fam­ily Tree will only al­low Tom Chad­wick to make the most mea­gre be­gin­ning of his ge­nealog­i­cal quest. Here’s hop­ing HBO sees fit to al­low this wor­thy ef­fort to put down roots in its sched­ule for a much longer stay.

RAY BURMISTON / HBO

Chris O’Dowd, left, and Michael McKean play fa­ther and son in Christopher Guest’s new HBO se­ries.

Nina Conti touches her mon­key.

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