Christopher Guest, the director of “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind,” has made a TV series for HBO.
The eight-episode “Family Tree,” which premieres Sunday, is his first work in seven years, and like his films it is sweet and funny and not a little melancholy. Guest gives the world a quarter-twist toward the ridiculous, without losing sight of the human dreams and strivings, obsessions and accommodations that are his main and constant subject.
The new series, which opens in England before moving in its second half to America, stars Chris O’Dowd, an Irish comic actor who has been insinuating himself little by little into the American consciousness; he was in “Bridesmaids” and “This Is 40" and had a recurring role in the first season of “Girls,” and many will know him as the star of the British sitcom “The IT Crowd.” Tall and sad-faced, he is a bit of a stand-in for the director who, unusually, stays behind the camera here for most of the series.
O’Dowd plays Tom Chadwick, who is at loose ends after the loss of his girlfriend and his job, assessing responsibility for traffic accidents — “which was pretty sexy.” Asked how he’s faring, he responds, “Good, you know, crying myself to sleep.”
The series opens like a novel, with an inheritance. A great aunt has died and left Tom a box of odds and ends; in trying to make sense of it, he is led to explore the roots and branches of “the great Chadwick oak,” heretofore mostly unknown to him.
“In our clan, family is what disappears when you’re not looking at it,” says father Keith. (He is played by Michael McKean, who has been English before, as David St. Hubbins alongside Guest’s Nigel Tufnel, in “This Is Spinal Tap.”) “Genealogy, like any other ology — best left to the scientists.”
Still, Tom is drawn on, putting up pictures of relatives on his apartment wall, connecting them, as in a police procedural, with string. They are small mysteries with large implications: questions such as “Who is that in this picture and why is he dressed that way?” or “Where is this person from, and why did he leave?” that add up, existentially, to “Who am I and why was I born?”
Where in the past Guest has largely focused on groups of characters who know what they want — a little too surely, even — Tom is unformed and unfinished. And where Guest has previously explored well-defined communities — the small-town amateur actors of “Waiting for Guffman,” the folk musicians of “A Mighty Wind,” the dog fanciers of “Best in Show,” the Hollywood hopefuls and has-beens of “For Your Consideration” — “Family Tree” is about finding one.
Tom is not quite alone in the world. He has a sister, Bea, played by Nina Conti, whose constant companion, acquired in childhood therapy, is a rude and inappropriate monkey puppet: “I take a lot of the heat, it has to be said,” Monkey says of their relationship. (A professional ventriloquist, Conti also appeared with Monkey in “For Your Consideration,” doing the weather on TV.) And he has a best friend, Pete (Tom Bennett), a happy idiot who appears to have been weaned on a diet of Ricky Gervais.
He also gets guidance in his quest from Mr. Pfister, proprietor of an antique store downstairs from Tom’s flat, and whose hobby, for which he has little aptitude, is making “landmarks in a bottle” — Mt. Rushmore or the Taj Mahal — which he feels is “more original.” Pfister is played by Jim Piddock, who co-wrote “Family Tree” with Guest and is a regular member of his repertory company. (The U.K. setting has introduced a lot of new faces into the mix, but old familiar ones will be appearing when Tom goes to meet his cousins in California.)
As a filmmaker, Guest is something like a cross between Mike Leigh and Preston Sturges. His work is at once silly and moving — I was tearing up at “Waiting for Guffman” the other night — and it is almost entirely without judgment.
Characters often don’t get along, with one another or the workaday world, but each is secure in his or her personhood. Guest has a liking for eccentrics and for losers whose refusal to quit makes them winners anyway. His actors improvise their dialogue (within the bounds of a strictly set story), and the extra degree of empathy that process requires lends their characters dignity, even at their oddest.
In one scene, Tom asks a friend of his late great aunt’s, beautifully played with a kind of amused seriousness by Barbara Bolton, why she thinks he might have been left the box.
“She hoped you might be the one to carry it on,” he is told.
“Carry on what?”
“I don’t know.”
And after a pause, with resolve, he answers, “I will.”
When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)