Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries are small, perceptive oddities, so unblinkingly committed to the worlds they investigate that the comedy can seem almost accidental. This is Spinal Tap (1984) spoofs the pretensions and ambitions of aging rockers with mortal seriousness. Waiting for Guffman (1996) does the same for a community theater ensemble in small-town Missouri. Best in Show (2000) makes tightly-wound dog owners into fully likeable monsters. Guest’s affection for his characters is total; the ironic distance is at times so slight as to be nearly invisible. But his films are also fundamentally ridiculous in a way that never feels forced or jokey.
Now Christopher Guest has made his first TV show, which premieres Sunday on HBO. The first sign that “Family Tree” is different from the rest of Guest’s work is that there is no wacky subculture at its heart, only an earnest investment in character and plot. Its protagonist is a young man named Tom (played by the charming Chris O’Dowd of Bridesmaids and "Girls")—recently fired from his job and dumped by his girlfriend—who sets out on a quest to reconstruct his own genealogy after a great aunt dies and leaves him a box of ancient knick-knacks. And so Tom wanders from city to city, from London to America, meeting genealogists and historians and other eccentrics, feeling sorry for himself all the way.
“Family Tree” makes for a somewhat baffling TV show. It is not quite a comedy because it is not particularly funny. There are at most a handful of moments that provoke more than a bemused smile in the first two episodes. Each episode is 28 minutes, which makes for a strange little sliver of Christopher Guest among other half-hour sitcoms chock-full of punch lines, clamoring for laughs. And so what is most frustrating about “Family Tree” is that it should be a welcome reprieve from the panting hysteria of many half-hour comedies—a gentler, more patient kind of satire. But the leisureliness and understatement that work so brilliantly in Guest’s films are frustratingly slack and shapeless here, evidence of an auteur unleashed on himself with precious little editorial interference. “I don’t make television shows,” Guest told me in a recent interview. “I don’t watch TV. I don’t like normal TV. I don’t like jokes.” For “Family Tree,” he said, “I looked at each episode as if it were a movie.” And in the end it is his refusal to tweak his style for the demands of television that makes “Family Tree” fall short.
Guest has been called the father of the mockumentary format. When he first met Ricky Gervais, the comedian said, “I’m glad to meet you. I’ve totally ripped you off.” But “mockumentary,” a word that Guest himself dislikes, is misleading in its implication of a certain kind of architecture: of the tight narrative engineering and peppy momentum of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family,” which borrow from Guest a deadpan camera-facing delivery but little else. Guest’s style is fully improvised. He creates what he calls a “character bible” and an outline of what happens in every scene, but nothing is scripted. All of his movies were cut down from between 50 and 60 hours of footage. And the improvisation works so well in his films because the narrative arc of a two-hour movie lends structure and depth; it allows the comedy to bubble up slowly. But “Family Tree” feels a bit like Guest started with the skeleton of a drama—the idea for the show occurred to him after his own father had died and left him dozens of boxes filled with relics—and put too much faith in the inherent comedy of funny people riffing together as the camera rolls. At the end of each episode there is a lingering feeling of incompleteness. The fragmentariness makes it hard to invest.
What “Family Tree” lacks is the low-grade atmospheric absurdity that makes “Spinal Tap” and “Guffman” so specific and surprising, minute-by-minute. For all Guest’s distaste for TV comedy, this show is ultimately a strange mix of straightforward drama and slapsticky sit-com gags: Tom discovers that his great-grandfather had a Vaudeville act in which he played the rear-end of a two-man horse, a visual stunt from which many, many jokes are wrung. Tom’s sister—played by the talented comic actress and ventriloquist Nina Conti—speaks through a monkey puppet called “Monk” as a result of a ridiculous childhood trauma. (For what it's worth: as a young girl she saw a puffin masturbating.) The show spends half its time being dull and half its time being goofy, and the two strains make for uneasy bedfellows. It is ultimately neither a conventional TV comedy nor, for the most part, recognizably Christopher Guest.
It’s a particular disappointment because there may be no one who does satire more slyly than Guest does. Think Nigel Tufnel pointing out that each knob on his amplifier “goes to 11” in “Spinal Tap” or Corky St. Clair, the diva-esque community theater director in “Guffman,” describing construction helmets as “sweeping yellow hats.” These are slight, idle moments, so poker-faced that you could miss them if your attention briefly lapsed. But they are also quietly ludicrous in a way that manages to seem—in this world, for these characters—fully natural. “Family Tree” has a few such scenes. In the second episode, Tom goes on a date with a woman who is obsessed with bones—she waxes at length about her affinity for the clavicle—and suddenly the show feels newly strange, infused with the same sad absurdity that makes the thwarted dreams and petty vanity of his film characters at once so plausible and so funny. It feels like a window into the show that “Family Tree” could have been.