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 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.
"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.