Chris O'Dowd, left, and Michael McKean in "Family Tree."
By Rob Owen Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PASADENA, Calif. -- HBO imports another set-in-England comedy, "Family Tree" (10:30 p.m. Sunday), but this time Ricky Gervais (HBO's "Extras," "Life's Too Short") is nowhere in sight.
The real star of "Family Tree" is off camera: director Christopher Guest, best known for the mockumentary films "Best in Show," "Waiting for Guffman" and "A Mighty Wind." He created and wrote "Family Tree" with Jim Piddock ("Tooth Fairy," "Too Much Sun").
"Family Tree" follows Tom Chadwick (Chris O'Dowd, "Bridesmaids") as he investigates his lineage after inheriting a deceased relative's box of knickknacks. The first four episodes take Tom and his best friend, Pete (Tom Bennett), around England as they dig into the history of Tom's ancestors, beginning with his great-grandfather. Episodes four through eight bring Tom to the U.S. to meet American relatives. This is where several of Mr. Guest's regular collaborators turn up, including Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Don Lake, Kevin Pollak and Fred Willard.
Sunday's premiere is pretty light on laughs. A couple of moments inspire guffaws but they are few and far between. The show's second episode offers more humor.
Michael McKean ("This Is Spinal Tap"), a frequent star of Mr. Guest's films, appears in "Family Tree" as Tom's Britcom-loving father, Keith. In the early going, much of the show's absurd humor comes from Tom's family, including stepmother Luba (Lisa Palfrey) and sister Bea (Nina Conti), who is never without a monkey puppet on her hand. The puppet supposedly allows her to "release her inner voice," although it mostly seems like an excuse for Bea to unleash funny-rude asides.
At a January press conference, Mr. Guest said Ms. Conti is a well-known ventriloquist in England and the monkey is her primary puppet.
"We thought she'd be perfect for this because she's a wonderful actor and improviser as well," he said. Improv is a hallmark of Mr. Guest's productions. While "Family Tree," like his past films, features actors improvising within each scene, the storyline itself is strictly plotted.
"In England, a journalist said, 'It must be the cushiest job in the world writing an improvised show,' " Mr. Piddock said. "And, in fact, it took longer than almost anything else I've ever worked on in about 25 years of writing. Our job is to lay out the characters in such specificity and detail that we do backstories for all of them so that people know literally what school they went to, everything, little tiny details. And I think once you arm actors with that and a solid story structure, which we have for each episode and for the arc for the whole series, people are in a secure enough place to play, hopefully."
"Family Tree" was inspired by Mr. Guest's own experience when his father died 16 years ago and left behind many boxes of material.
"The popularity of Ancestry.com and other sites help us to frame this in a way that most people can understand," Mr. Guest said. "It just happened to coincide with my own kind of searching for this initially without the benefit of the Internet and then using various sites."
The story in "Family Tree" includes heightened comedy Mr. Guest did not encounter in his own lineage research.
"We've had some interesting, funny turns, I hope, that make this amusing," Mr. Guest said. "And [Tom's] situation in our show -- he's lost his girlfriend and his job at the same time -- propels him to look into this chest that he's received because he doesn't really have anything else going on in his life at the time."
For Mr. O'Dowd, who plays Tom and is best known to American audiences as the cop boyfriend of Kristen Wiig's character in "Bridesmaids," it's his first time working with Mr. Guest.
"In terms of the intimidation, it's tricky because everybody else is so good and I am new to it," he said. "We know story-wise what's going to happen, but you don't know what's going to happen in the moment in a specific scene and you are meeting these characters in this journey for the first time. You don't know what the characters are like and where they are going to bring it. That's tricky but very, very fun. You go to work every day not knowing how it's going to end, which is really nice."
Upfronts, no 'Hatfields' and PBS
Next week is upfront week when the broadcast networks announce their new fall lineups -- and by omission, which old shows they're canceling. I'll post network releases in Tuned In Journal (http://communityvoices.post-gazette.com/arts-entertainment-living/tuned-in) as soon as they are available. NBC's announcement should be out sometime on Sunday, followed by Fox on Monday, ABC on Tuesday, CBS on Wednesday and The CW on Thursday.
Already the fates of some pilots have started to leak out. On Wednesday NBC opted not to pick up the Pittsburgh-set, filmed-in-Boston pilot "Hatfields & McCoys" to series. There had been efforts to bring the "Hatfields" series to Pittsburgh for production of subsequent episodes but now that won't happen.
Fox ordered nine new series to air during the 2013-14 TV season and is expected to cancel Kiefer Sutherland drama "Touch."
Meanwhile, PBS, attempting to get some press attention in advance of the commercial broadcasters' big week, announced its own fall programming, including new "American Masters" episodes devoted to Billie Jean King, Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Hamlisch; a six-hour documentary on "Latino Americans," an "American Experience" on Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds," the "Frontline" special "Concussion Watch" and "Foyle's War, Series VII" on "Masterpiece Mystery!"
In addition, the "PBS Arts Fall Festival" will include two "Great Performances" from the theater world: "Stephen Sondheim's 'Company' With the New York Philharmonic" starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patti Lupone and Stephen Colbert and "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!"
PBS will also debut a new series, "Genealogy Roadshow," which combines history and science to tell the stories of a diverse array of Americans.
Pittsburghers love traditional TV
Nielsen, the ratings people, released a study this week that wasn't filled with a lot of surprises about Pittsburgh, a market that's long been one of the heavier consumers of TV.
Most notably, Nielsen found that viewers ages 25-54 in Pittsburgh watch the most traditional TV of viewers in any of the Top 25 TV markets nationally (five hours and 28 minutes per day).
Perhaps, not surprisingly, Pittsburgh does not rank highly when it comes to newer technologies. Pittsburgh does not make the Top 10 markets for smartphones, it's near the bottom of the pack in time-shifted TV viewing without a DVR (meaning via on demand or on a smart TV) and in smart TV ownership (just 3.7 percent, the lowest in the Top 25 other than Charlotte at 2.9 percent).
Pittsburgh also ranks lowest among iPad penetration at just 9 percent of the population (the U.S. average is 14 percent).
Sunday night TLC brings back "Long Island Medium" (9 p.m.) and "Breaking Amish" (10 p.m.), which is now called "Breaking Amish: Brave New World" as it follows the show's first-season cast. ... HBO's British import "Life's Too Short" will wrap up with a special episode on July 5. ... The final season of "Damages" finally arrives on DVD July 16. ... Cartoon Network debuts the first of three "LEGO Star Wars" specials at 8 p.m. May 29 with the 30-minute "The Yoda Chronicles." ... Amanda Holt of Beaver will be a contestant on CBS's "The Price Is Right" (11 a.m. weekdays, KDKA-TV) on Tuesday. ... Pittsburgh native Andy Mientus exited NBC's "Smash" in the most recent episode and another Pittsburgher, actor Paul McGill ("Fame"), returns in the show's season/series finale, airing May 26.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "NCIS," "Monday Mornings" and "Whose Line Is It Anyway." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Bates Motel," "Constitution USA," "Nashville" and "The Office." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.