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The HBO series "Family Tree" is the latest endeavor by comic genius Christopher Guest (co-created with Jim Piddock, another terrific comedic actor). Guest has been in the business for decades as a writer, director and actor (shout out to Spinal Tap). For me, his artistic peak as a filmmaker came with his series of faux documentary features that began with 1996's "Waiting for Guffman" and carried on with 2000's "Best in Show," 2003's "A Mighty Wind," and 2006's "For Your Consideration." Guest's specialty in these films is that he really understands his subjects and has a genuine affection for them. Although absurd, they have an underlying tenderness and sweetness. He and his cast of largely improvisational performers (there is a somewhat regular stable) skewer topics such as amateur theater, dog shows, folk music, or the quest for Academy Award glory. Deadpan and droll, these features are both wickedly funny (especially Guffman and Show) and surprisingly truthful. Their humor stems from the fact that they treat their characters with respect and embrace the oddity inherent in the environments they inhabit. I mention this tone specifically, because if you have no idea what I'm talking about than "Family Tree" may confound your expectations somewhat.

Although moments in this eight part series are laugh out loud funny, the show's sense of humor can be understated as well. Chris O'Dowd plays a typical Londoner entering into an existential mid-life crisis. After losing his job and his girl, he becomes somewhat directionless. One day, he collects a strange box of remembrances left to him by a deceased Aunt he hardly knew. Upon poking through this rather meager collection, he finds an old photograph of (what he presumes) is his grandfather and this opens up an unexpected mission. He want to understand his family, his heritage, and maybe his own sense of identity in the process. As he embarks on a quest that will take him around England and eventually to California, he will meet an assortment of eccentrics ranging from odd to absolutely loony. The show is good natured, with charm to spare, and O'Dowd has a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is infectious. I was totally committed to his journey, no matter where it led.

Like the films I mentioned, this plays with a mockumentary feel where the actors are just allowed to play off one another extemporaneously. O'Dowd is assisted and often accompanied by his sister (Nina Conti) and exuberant best friend (Tom Bennett). The cast features Guest stalwarts like Michael McKean (O'Dowd's father), Ed Begley Jr., and Fred Willard with both Guest and Piddock also appearing. McKean is a standout and the source of some great running jokes (British TV, odd inventions). Bennett takes a rather conventional character of the bawdy best friend and serves up some of the biggest laughs. And O'Dowd is a terrific host to the proceedings. His reactions to what unfolds can be fantastic, I just loved watching his face. I have to (it is imperative) make special mention of Nina Conti, the show's absolute MVP in my estimation. Conti performs the entire show with a ventriloquist's monkey on her hand. Monkey (that's his name) has a scathing wit that often boils things down to their true essence. Reading this, you might think this borders on farce, but Conti is absolutely mesmerizing (she'd be on my short list for Supporting Actress at the Emmys). In the end, "Family Tree" might be too British, too quiet, or too odd for a mass market audience. But if you love Guest and/or British humor, "Family Tree" is a comedy with both laughs and heart. KGHarris, 7/13.
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Tracing your family tree seems to be addictive. As soon as my mother got a taste, she spent every spare moment she had looking up obscure medieval ancestors.

One can only wonder if Christopher Guest had a similar experience that inspired "Family Tree," which proves that Guest can make almost anything funny. Half quirky dramedy and half mockumentary, this smart little show follows a young man who gets his life together as he learns the stories of his ancestors... who, it turns out, are almost as weird as the kith and kin he has now.

Tom Chadwick (Chris O'Dowd) is depressed after the double-punch of being dumped by his job and his girlfriend, so the death of a great-aunt doesn't make much of an impression. But in the box of things she left him, he finds an unnamed picture of a Victorian officer, which he believes may be one of his ancestors. He's accompanied by his insane friend Pete (Tom Bennett) and sometimes his even more insane sister Bea (Nina Conti) who can only communicate via a foul-mouthed monkey hand puppet.

With the picture as his starting point, he begins to investigate the stories of his ancestors -- which involve the theatre, the Olympics, cousins on a farm, betrayal, hot-air balloons, sex and pantomime horses. Tom's quest even takes him over to the US, where he searches for a possible Native American ancestress, a guy who apparently fought for both sides in the Civil War, and some eccentric cousins from L.A.

Anyone familiar with Christopher Guest's movies will probably feel right at home in "Family Tree." It has Guest's usual approach -- a mockumentary where everybody acts and speaks in a very serious manner... except that they often do or say bizarre, hilarious things (Luba's speech about a strange virginity-and-egg-based Moldavian festival), or fail to understand what is going on around them (Pete and Tom do not understand that Great-Aunt Victoria was a lesbian).

It doesn't sound like there's much substance to the plot here, but Guest keeps things moving with a steady stream of quietly quirky stuff. It helps that much of the humor is subtle rather than obvious (Tom remarks that he has "a good six months of wallowing left" about his breakup and firing). The show loses some momentum when Tom travels to L.A., but things do pick up when he continues the quest for the story of his American cousins.

It also shows the subtler side of Chris O'Dowd's comic talents, and his grungy sad-eyed charm. Tom is the straight man in all this madness, and has a quietly broken quality that makes him instantly endearing. But he ultimately finds inspiration from the struggles of his ancestors, and the family-tree-tracing gives him something to focus on rather than his unemployed-and-single status. Also, O'Dowd is a LOT taller than I thought he was.

And as the straight man, he's surrounded by weirdos, played by Conti, McKean, Jim Piddock, Guest himself, Ed Begley Jr., Matt Griesser. These actors are what keep the slight plot conceit afloat -- without scenes like Bea and Monk bombing horribly at a wedding, the comedy would seem kind of one-note.

Sadly, HBO cancelled "Family Tree," presumably because it specializes in quirk rather than self-indulgence. But the one season is a charming, characteristically Guestian little adventure in genealogy. Fun and adorable.
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on March 9, 2014
This show is unlike anything else I have seen and i love it! I heard it has been cancelled though, which is a bummer because I definitely wanted to see more of the character's journey! but glad I have the dvd in my collection so I can watch it any time!
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on October 28, 2013
"Family Tree" is absolutely hilarious. Every episode is superb, with Chris O'Dowd heading a terrific ensemble cast. For the millions of us who are dabbling in our own ancestry searches, who better to lampoon the process, and the inherent anticipations of ancient greatness, than comic genius Christopher Guest? The first season takes O'Dowd's character, Tom, through the ups and downs of genealogy tracking, meeting so called experts and distant cousins with family secrets. Tom goes from the UK to America, as he discovers one of his Grandfathers did the opposite of most people, and actually moved from America to the UK. "Idiot" is the term Tom ascribes to this ancester for that miscalculation. As he explores his possible Native American roots, he meets his U.S relations. All are a funny collection of oddballs, with Guest, himself appearing as one of the oddest. So, so funny. But, one of the best characters throughout the season, is Tom's sister, Bea, a ventriloquist, who relates largely to people through her monkey hand puppet. His name is "Monk" or just "Monkey" and everyone involved, treats him as part of the family. He says all the deranged and nasty stuff, she is thinking but can't say. OMG. Side splitting hilarity! I cannot wait for Season 2 of "Family Tree," and is it too much to ask, that Guest maybe give Bea and "Monk" their own show? Great stuff!

Certain Adverse Events
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on September 24, 2014
I am so sorry that HBO decided not to renew this series. It's the same people who did "Spinal Tap," "Waiting for Guffman," and "Best in Show," and Chris O'Dowd fits right in with the usual suspects. He's looking for information on his family, which takes him from the UK to the USA, and he meets lots of strange people along the way. It's very low key, and it's worth watching more than once just to see what you missed the first time through. It's delightful, if you like that sort of thing, and I do.
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on April 5, 2016
This is an amazing show. Fell in Love with it when it was on HBO. Sadly, and for unknown reasons, it only lasted one season. But the writing and the acting is great. It will make you Urinate yourself laughing--literally.
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This is a genial mockumentary from Christopher Guest. He writes, directs, composes the music and appears in several of the American episodes. He also draws on both his English and American heritage.

The series (as yet unrenewed, unfortunately) features Chris O’Dowd as Tom Chadwick, a raised-in-Ireland Londoner who seeks to flesh out his family tree. Sometimes accompanied by his zany friend Pete and sometimes by his sister Bea, his quest takes him as far north as Derbyshire and as far west as Los Angeles. Bea (Nina Conti) speaks through a hand puppet monkey (‘Monk’) who is utterly hilarious. Their father is played by Michael McKean, a devotee of British sitcoms who can identify an episode after seeing 2-3 second clips. Fred Willard plays the gay neighbor of Tom’s Glendale, CA relative, played by Ed Begley, Jr. Guest appears as a North Carolina relative (echoing his character in Best in Show).

The tone throughout is bittersweet/comic, with wonderful British humor and broader American comedy. Vignettes include a trip to an ‘Indian’ souvenir shop in the Mojave Desert, the reenactment of a civil war battle in which the confederate general is a hairdresser in everyday life and a pantomime horse race in which a two-legged giraffe and two-legged panda cheat their way ahead of Tom and Pete’s four-legged horse. The latter has the flavor of a Python routine.

In the first season there are eight 30-minute episodes. This is a beautiful and entertaining way to spend an evening, with the minutes flying by and Guest’s genius everywhere in evidence.
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on June 23, 2014
I am into genealogy, my husband is not, and was highly skeptical when I purchased and wanted to watch this. He absolutely adored it! We both did, were laughing throughout and we were both delighted, but really disappointed that the series was only made for one season. It is great fun.
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on May 19, 2014
What a pity that HBO reportedly cancelled this series after just one season!!! I thought they had more insight and integrity than that, but apparently not...

Because here Christopher Guest and his troupe of brilliant improvisers are back at the top of their game after the disappointing film "For Your Consideration."

Tree is the story of a young Brit trying to find himself (after losing his job and girlfriend) by rediscovering his family roots.

Hilarity ensues, as his journey to the past introduces him to an amazing array of situations and characters both in England and America.

If you ever enjoyed Guest and company's best previous work, notably the films "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show," and "A Mighty Wind," trust me when I say that this series is absolutely on the same level with those mockumentary masterpieces.

As always, Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Ed Begley Jr., Jim Piddock, Bob Balaban, and others show up to take ad libbing to new heights, but here they are also joined by the charming Chris O'Dowd as the young man in search of himself, as well as the remarkable Nina Conti as his sister Bea, who communicates with the use of a monkey hand puppet named, well, Monkey.

I think Conti may be the best ventriloquist I've seen since Edgar Bergen or Paul Winchell! Plus she can ad lib with the best of them -- and she has great legs!!!

Some of the highlights of this series include the dopey formulaic Britcoms the Michael McKean character finds so hilarious; a race of humans in animal costumes; Bea and Monkey's ruinous performance at a wedding; a Civil War battle reenactment; and much more.

I also highly recommmend that you purchase this DVD set, which includes a number of bonus scenes that are ALL killer with NO filler.

Will another cable network step in to rescue this series? One can only hope -- I want to see if Tom Chadwick stays with his new sweetie in America or returns to Britain with his buddy Pete, Bea, and Monkey...
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on May 4, 2016
I loved this. Saw it on Amazon Prime and bought my Dad this set for Christmas. We peed our pants. So funny. You have to listen hard as the Irish accent can make it a bit hard to get all the jokes sometimes as the humor is dry, quick and sometimes very subtle but we laughed. I wish it wasn't over in one season.
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