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Shaking the Family Tree


Tom Chadwick, the aimless, hard-luck bloke at the heart of director Christopher Guest’s endearing faux-documentary HBO comedy Family Tree, will grasp at any straw linking him to his brave, fearless ancestors.

“I was the first out of our group to wear skinny jeans,” he brags.

Played with unlimited likeability by Chris O’Dowd (“Bridesmaids”), Chadwick is emotionally adrift in London after losing his job and girlfriend.

He finds new purpose after inheriting a box of family mementos from a forgotten great-aunt.

Every ancient photo and tattered souvenir opens a genealogical mystery, fueling the eight-episode series with Tom’s great expectations and inevitable deflations.

Yes, great-grandfather Harry acted onstage with Laurence Olivier. But he was a horse’s rear, building a career as the tail-end of a costume.

Even worse, the front end ran off with Harry’s wife — but not before leaving a mighty windy goodbye.

“Only 55 when he died,” says Tom over a tombstone engraved with a horse’s rump.

“Died so young of a broken heart and lungs full of the flatulence of his betrayer.”

Guest helped invent the fake-doc genre as co-writer of This is Spinal Tap and all but perfected it as director of Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. His trademark low-key whimsy is here, along with an ensemble that makes comic improvisation look easy and undetectable.

Comedy as droll and wistful as this shouldn’t be oversold, and not all of the riffs work.

Nina Conti, as Tom’s deadpan sister Bea, does as well as could be expected with a foul- mouthed, ever-present monkey puppet.

But Guest, who co-created the series with Jim Piddock (appearing as a local antiques expert), is faultless in casting.

British actors, including Conti and Tom Bennett (as Chadwick’s garrulous pal) dominate the first four Britain-based episodes, with Guest veterans Fred Willard and Bob Balaban among the co-stars promised for the final four U.S. episodes (unavailable for review).

Happily, we don’t have to wait for Michael McKean, a Guest stalwart since Spinal Tap.

He arrives early on as Chadwick’s dad, a loving, down-to-earth fellow who suspects no good can come from his son’s new hobby.

“In our clan,” says the father, “family is what disappears when you’re not looking at it.”

Family Tree airs Sunday on HBO at 8:30 p.m.

l “In our old bodies,” says documentarian and Holocaust survivor Marian Marzynski in Never Forget to Lie, “we are still children.”

The emotional film, airing on PBS’s Frontline, chronicles the Boston-based Marzynski’s return to the Warsaw Ghetto as he attends an annual gathering of child survivors.

In addition to telling his own story for the first time, Marzynski accompanies other survivors as they revisit the crumbling buildings and courtyards of their childhoods. “I see my people in the windows,” one woman cries as she recalls witnessing the executions of sick and elderly Jews in the ghetto.

Like Marzynski, most of the children survivors evaded deportation to death camps with the help of Christian friends. In most cases, they would never see their families again.

“The Holocaust story has been told by others,” Marzynski says as he introduces the wrenching testimonials. “This is our turn.”

Never Forget to Lie airs today, May 14 on PBS’s Frontline at 8 p.m.

 
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