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Guest’s sitcom targets oddball British humor

By DAVID WIEGAND San Francisco Chronicle

Publication: The Day

Published May 09. 2013 4:00AM

Ever think that "Waiting for Guffman" or "Best in Show" could be a weekly TV series? If so, you almost get your wish with "Family Tree," a new half-hour sitcom created by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock for HBO.

Just as Guest's films poked knowing fun at dog shows, community theater and folk music, "Family Tree" targets, if not the entire United Kingdom, at least its oddball national sense of humor and its shameless affection for weird sitcoms.

Chris O'Dowd, who's getting lots of attention for the film "The Sapphires," stars as Tom Chadwick, a lovable loser who finds himself jobless and single. When he was a kid, his parents split up and split their progeny as well: While Tom went off with Mom to Ireland, his sister Bea (Nina Conti) stayed in England with their dad, Keith (Michael McKean), who spends his days watching old Brit-coms and occasionally trying to understand his Slavic-born second wife, Luba (Lisa Palfrey).

After his great-aunt Victoria dies and leaves him a box of junk, Tom decides to trace his family's roots using some of the curios left to him in her will. With his childhood pal Pete Stupples (Tom Bennett), Tom locates far-flung relatives and others who knew his ancestors, always believing he'll find he was descended from someone important and always being disappointed.

The characters are, if anything, even quirkier than those in Guest's films. Bea, for example, was traumatized as a child by a puffin in Wales. As therapy, it was suggested she use a monkey hand puppet to express her inner voice. As an adult, she's still with Monkey, whom she carefully straps into a child's car seat while accompanying Tom on a visit to their dad.

Then there's Mr. Pfister (series co-creator Jim Piddock), who runs Mr. Pfister's Bits and Bobs, a store filled with junk. His dream is to strike it rich by creating Landmarks in a Bottle, which are exactly what you'd expect - except he hasn't been able to perfect building landmarks inside bottles yet.

Just as "A Mighty Wind" and "Waiting for Guffman" aren't like traditional movies, "Family Tree" isn't like traditional sitcoms, in that there isn't a traditional setup-punch-line structure to it. It does evoke comedies such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Arrested Development," though, where the humor is more incremental, character-based and cumulative.

But perhaps most immediately, "Family Tree" parodies British sitcoms like "Are You Being Served," "Fawlty Towers" and "Keeping Up Appearances," among others. When we see McKean's character splitting his sides over a rerun of his favorite show, "Move Along, Please," he knows every single joke in part because he's seen the episode repeatedly and in part because Brit-coms are notorious for milking laughs by repeating jokes in every episode.

"Family Tree" airs at 10:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO.

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