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Master of the mockumentary5/8/2013
Christopher Guest brings his patented style to HBO’s ‘Family Tree’
Christopher Guest earned a place in my pantheon by pioneering the mockumentary with his script for 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap.” Since then, as a writer-director, he’s perfected the style in one big-screen gem after another: “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind.” His approach has been imitated on TV by the likes of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.”
So you can understand why Guest would claim a right to his own TV series. This week, he premieres “Family Tree” (Sunday, 9:30 p.m., HBO), in which an English sad sack named Tom (Chris O’Dowd) delves into his family background. To judge from the pilot, however, a half-hour timeslot isn’t Guest’s forte. He’s not too interested in plot or punchlines, the sitcom’s stock-in-trade. Like his movies, “Family Tree” is episodic, relying on the actors improvising lines for their quirky characters.
But at least the movies have climaxes. Nothing much happens in this week’s episode of “Family Tree,” and the improvisation is hit or miss. Even the characters with potential (like Tom’s sister, who communicates her inner feelings through a monkey hand puppet) aren’t on screen long enough to make an impression.
Of course, there’s an upside to hit-or-miss improvisation. Maybe “Family Tree” will score more hits in next week’s episode.
‘XOX, Betsey Johnson’
Sunday, 7 p.m. (Style)
It’s not easy to find yet another sorta-celebrity who’ll make an interesting reality show subject. But Style has struck pay dirt with the loopy clothing designer Betsey Johnson. A skin-and-bones septuagenarian, Johnson still dresses in the punk-princess style she popularized in the 1980s. It’s a style best suited to teenagers, but so what? Johnson stays young by flirting with every good-looking hunk within reach.
Betsey’s daughter, Lulu, is a clothing designer herself — a more tasteful one — and she hopes for a breakthrough with her new line. But first she has to get out from her mother’s shadow. If only she can get Betsey to tone it down, Lulu thinks, she’ll be able to come into her own.
Yeah, good luck with that project.
‘10 Buildings That Changed America
Sunday, 9 p.m. (PBS)
This wonderful documentary offers a chronological tour of America’s most influential buildings, from the neoclassical Virginia State Capitol by Thomas Jefferson to the whimsical Disney Concert Hall by Frank Gehry. We learn that American architecture is characterized not by a single style, but by an eagerness to invent new forms.
“10 Buildings That Changed America” shares anecdotes and analysis of such buildings as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House (the inspiration for ranch houses) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (the inspiration for modern skyscrapers). My favorite segment concerns 1956’s Southdale Center in Edina, Minn., the first modern indoor mall.
It turns out that malls were conceived by a utopian socialist, Victor Gruen, who deplored the unsightly commercial strips proliferating in the suburbs. Gruen wanted to create a community center, so he built Southdale’s 72 stores around a garden court to mimic an urban setting.
The next time you wash down a Cinnabon with an Orange Julius, don’t forget to tip your hat to the utopian socialist who made it all possible. CV
Dean Robbins is a syndicated TV columnist from Madison, Wis. who graduated from Grinnell College. See more at www.thedailypage.com.