TV Picks: ‘Family Tree,’ ‘Nashville,’ ‘10 Buildings,’ ‘The Middle’

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

“Family Tree” (HBO, premieres Sunday). Christopher Guest has made you a TV series. Thank him. The director of “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show” and one of the forces behind and in “This Is Spinal Tap” -- in which he was Nigel Tufnel, whose amplifier went to 11 and whose guitar you were not to touch or even to look at -- Guest has been an architect of modern comedy, from the improvised dialogue that marks his films to the documentary style in which most have been shot. Its sound is his sound, its look his look. (Ricky Gervais owes him his career, if we are to consider that career based on “The Office”; “Parks & Recreation” could almost be Guest’s own work.) In the wonderful “Family Tree,” hangdog Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids,” “The IT Crowd”), finding his life stalled after losing a girlfriend and a job in short order, goes in search of his roots and relatives. It’s a trip that takes him into the theater, a boxing club, England’s rural north, the back end of pantomime horse and finally to America. Michael McKean, a regular member of Guest’s repertory company, plays Tom’s father; Nina Conti his troubled ventriloquist sister. Jim Piddock, another Guest player, co-wrote the series and also appears in it, as Tom’s antique-dealing downstairs neighbor. Familiar faces Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr. and Amy Seimetz will also arrive in due time.

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“Nashville” (ABC, Wednesdays). Although I am not privy to what goes on behind the closed doors of the American Broadcasting Company, it is hard not to suspect that the course of “Nashville” has been shaped by other series that have done well for the network -- that is, from a show that seemed pretty interested in how people made music, sold music and related to other people who made and sold it, it has come more and more to resemble “Scandal” and “Revenge” and “Grey’s Anatomy” in the speed and intensity of its soap-opera reversals of allegiance and fortune. It’s all sickness and death and intrigue and betrayal and self-betrayal and reformation and reclamation and so forth on these banks of the Cumberland. Still, it’s a show I continue to watch, for Connie Britton --- her mature country star Rayna James is the Bette Davis in this “Y’all About Eve” story -- and Clare Bowen as the humble Southern phenom Scarlett O’Connor. (I like Hayden Panettiere, too, as Juliette Barnes -- Anne Baxter to Britton’s Bette -- but her story lines have become completely thankless.) Britton, who survived worse with “American Horror Story,” is one of TV’s best natural actresses, and one of its most unself-consciously beautiful; the way her eyeshadow lies along her laugh lines is a story in itself. Bowen seems to have been imported straight out of some holler; it will be will be a shock when I finally hear her own Australian accent. The men, who are mostly weak or mean, are less interesting, though it is always good to see J.D. Souther as a wise-owl producer. Two episodes remain this season; last week’s coming attractions hinted at violence. The finale, on May 22, will feature Brad Paisley as himself.

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“10 Buildings That Changed America” (PBS, Sunday). Chicago public broadcasting personality Geoffrey Baer visits 10 landmark structures -- in chronological order from Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol to Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall -- in this sprightly dash through two centuries of American architecture. Baer’s choices reflect a range of style and purpose and let him cover a lot of territory in a few strokes. Structures range from Frank Lloyd Wright’s low-slung single-family Robie House to Albert Kahn’s Highland Park Ford Plant to Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center (the birth of the modern mall) to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s stately Seagram Building and Eero Saarinen’s Dulles International Airport. (Baer does make the point that their influence, on lesser hands, was not always to the good.) It’s a bit like a package tour of five countries in four days, but you’ll learn something if you pay attention. Features the quite adorable Robert Venturi (on the postmodernist house he built his mother, though that’s not a term he likes himself) and his equally adorable partner and wife, the architect Denise Scott Brown.

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The Middle (ABC, Wednesdays). “The Middle,” the Patricia Heaton-led family sitcom about it taking all the running you can do to stay in the same place, has been going from perfect episode to perfect episode for a while now. Subversively, and with one great exception, it concerns people who know their limits -- the limits of what they can do and what they are capable of doing for one another -- and are fine with them. The exception is excitable underachiever Sue Heck -- one of television’s most original creations, divinely played by Eden Sher. But Sher is just one light among many. (There is nothing like a long-running sitcom for developing rich characters -- characters who can speak encyclopedias with a widened eye or a stifled cough.) Also, a recent episode in which brothers Axl (Charlie McDermott) and Brick (Atticus Shaffer) made a James Bond film with bunnies and kittens was one of the best things I have ever seen, on television or anywhere else. This week’s episode, entitled “The Ditch” (meant both in the sense of cutting school and ... a ditch), includes guest shots by Dave Foley, as Brick’s school therapist, and Jack McBrayer as Heaton’s new boss.