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With Family Tree, Spinal Tap creator Christopher Guest serves up heaps of fun

There's a small fuss going on about the upcoming series finale of the U.S. version of The Office. How will it end? And, as some people might well ponder, how do you actually end a pseudo-documentary with some sort of authentic closure?

Let's leave that to the geniuses at NBC. The Office, in its original British form, and several other U.S. shows – Parks & Recreation, Modern Family – owe an enormous amount to Christopher Guest, who refined the mockumentary format with the movies This is Spinal Tap and later with Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Well, Guest has a new outing in the genre, done for TV. It's a very droll, rather charming series.

Family Tree (Sunday, HBO Canada, 10:30 p.m.) is it, and it's a quiet, glorious delight. Guest and co-writer Jim Piddock use the now-familiar elements of the genre – the script is semi-improvised, there are little periods of silence, and there are scenes in which the main characters do talking-head interviews with the never-seen documentary crew allegedly chronicling their story and activities.

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Here, it's an English setting. Tom Chadwick (Irish actor Chris O'Dowd) is a sad-sack chap, without a girlfriend or job. His dad (Michael McKean, a Guest regular) tells him that a distant aunt has died and left him a box of trinkets and memorabilia. Without much to do in his life, Tom decides to try to gain a picture of his family and its past by examining all the ephemera in the box. Thus he sets out on the highways and byways of family history, assisted by a motley assortment of eccentrics, some of them his own immediate family.

What happens in the first episodes varies from the silly to the truly inspired and funny – it's slow, dopey, subdued and hilarious TV. Tom's sister carries a monkey puppet everywhere. It's explained she had a traumatic experience with a bird – a puffin – and the monkey-puppet now speaks her true thoughts. It does, however, make it difficult for her to keep a job. Their dad is an inventor of sorts, obsessed with finding something to make shoes feel warm or cool for a person's feet. One of the running jokes is Tom's constant watching of ancient British TV series, which he unduly adores.

The storylines, though slight, are filled with wonderfully drawn characters. An expert in old photos is accurately described as "mad as a box of frogs" by another character. Tom goes on a date with a woman who explains why she believes dinosaurs, including the Loch Ness Monster, still exist. Every now and then Fred Willard and Ed Begly Jr. show up to play a role, as they have done in almost every Guest production.

Much depends on O'Dowd, who is very fine here, displaying abilities that are far from roles he's known for – he was in the movie Bridesmaids; and on Girls he played Thomas-John, the capitalist guy who had a weird encounter with Jessa and Marnie, and ended up marrying Jessa.

Here, he's a lovable slacker, always vaguely amused by the weirdness around him, but seeming to barely notice. Family Tree is just the thing for anyone who loves Guest's mock-documentary comedy and for anyone who wants cozy but crazy English laughs.

Also airing this weekend

The Invisible War (Saturday, CBC NN, 10 p.m.) is a repeat but should be noted if you haven't seen it and have the fortitude for it. The Oscar-nominated documentary is about "the epidemic of rape within the U.S. military." The film paints a shocking picture: "A female U.S. soldier in combat zones is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire."

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Once Upon a Time (Sunday ABC, CTV, 8 p.m.) is one of two season finales to keep in mind. Apparently, "Storybrooke's inhabitants brace themselves as Greg and Tamara activate the trigger within the curse." Constant viewers will know what that means. Revenge (Sunday ABC, CITY-TV, 9 p.m.) features "a catastrophic moment that changes everyone's lives; a heartbreaking death forces Emily to evaluate her quest for revenge." You can rest assured that Emily will return next season to continue her fraught and fabulous campaign for revenge against the no-goodniks and the meanies.s

All times ET. Check local listings.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More


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