Fundamental to any Christopher Guest film is the deep dedication its characters have to their subculture of choice, be it purebred dogs (“Best in Show”), heavy metal (“This is Spinal Tap”), community theater (“Waiting for Guffman”) or folk music (“A Mighty Wind”). The scenarios can get ridiculous — like the “Guffman” musical devoted to the largely drama-free history of Blaine, Missouri — but the emotional investment is real, and for the figures on screen the stakes are immense, whether they be in the large scale arenas of the Oscar campaigns of “For Your Consideration” or the smaller ones of the canine competitions of “Show.” It’s an appreciation of that blind devotion that shifts Guest’s films from straightforward mockery to something gentler that requires us to invest in the fate of these people even as we find them hilarious — like Nigel Tufnel playing a beautiful Bach and Mozart-inspired piano composition for Marty DiBergi in D minor, “the saddest of all keys,” then telling him earnestly that it’s entitled “Lick My Love Pump.”
Tom Chadwick (Chris O’Dowd), the protagonist of Guest’s new HBO series “Family Tree,” premiering on Sunday, May 12 at 10:30pm, is unusual in the filmmaker’s canon in that he, at least, is aware of the off-kilter nature of the avocation with which he’s obsessed even as it becomes his lifeline. A thirtyish Londoner, Tom’s had his heart broken and lost his job in the past year, and, at dejected loose ends, become interested in exploring his family’s history after inheriting a box of generations of nicknacks and heirlooms from a distant relative. Tom does not live in the oblivious bubble so many of Guest’s past characters have inhabited — he knows that he’s been knocked out of the more typical life he was leading, and that his delving into genealogy functions both as a way to give himself something to do and as a means of self-exploration by looking into his family’s past.
Tom’s relatability grounds “Family Tree” in a less goofy reality than any of Guest’s films. “It’s been about six months,” his sister Bea (Nina Conti) observes when he says he hasn’t been dating anyone. “Yeah, a woman would just get in the way of my wallowing, which I’ve really grown quite attached to,” he answers, estimating that he’s “got another six months of wallowing to do.” He’s the extremely likable center around which silliness swirls, and it’s the kind of role that plays well to O’Dowd’s charms as an actor — he’s dopily handsome and too smart to be down in the dumps forever, and so he approaches his pain with a practical self-deprecation, something to be endured and slogged through until things inevitably get better.
Tom’s feelings of isolation, some of them self-imposed, are highlighted by the ways in which his friends and family are there for him while also not able to really empathize — they recognize he has to work through his malaise alone, and they’re also caught up in their own lives. This is particularly true of the very funny Bea, who incorporates Conti’s gifts as a ventriloquist by incorporating the monkey puppet with which she performs as a compulsive outlet for Bea’s unfiltered thoughts, one she’s apparently unable to control. Tom Bennett, playing Tom’s bestie Pete, serves a similar function for his friend, spilling out ill-advised jokes without thought, while Michael McKean as Tom’s dad Keith has his odd Slavic wife, his inventions and the TV comedies by which he’s often enraptured.
The storyline allows for an easy episodic structure, as Tom looks into different branches of his family tree with the help of the owner of the neighboring “Bits & Bobs” store, Mr. Pfister (Jim Piddock, who co-created and wrote the series). His rambling exploration takes him to a theater and a farm in the countryside, and, eventually, to America, as different Guest regulars like Ed Begley Jr. and Fred Willard pop up — he also starts going on dates and looking for a new job. The more strenuous quirkiness of the people Tom meets doesn’t always mesh with his good-natured melancholy, though it nicely undercuts Tom’s search for some kind of epiphany. The sweetness of the series and of its theme of looking for connection, even if its in never-before-seen relatives, sustains it through the half-hour episodes.
“Family Tree” follows Guest’s tried-and-true faux documentary style, interweaving handheld shooting with interviews in which the characters talk to the camera. While it’s a format that Guest has used in most of his films, it’s also one that’s become common in contemporary TV, with “Modern Family,” “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” all shot in a mockumentary style, with and without the explanation of who’s supposedly behind the camera. But Guest was first, and uses the form along with the improvisation he embraces to create something that still feels very much his own, if sometimes actorly in its bits of action — Lisa Palfrey’s role as Keith’s wife Luba, for instance, never really comes together as more than bundles of tics. “Family Tree” may not measure up to the provocative or large scale fare crowding HBO’s schedule — in fact, it feels deliberately homey and small — but its warmly pleasant to spend time with these characters, especially Tom, as he staggers through a rough time with the help of the family members who love him and the ones he hasn’t yet met.