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Picks and Pans Main: TV

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Family Tree

HBO, May 12, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT |


Director Christopher Guest indirectly reinvented the sitcom with “mockumentary” movies like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. Without those classics, filmed with a modesty and an unfussiness that made them ideally scaled for the home screen, we wouldn’t have Parks and Recreation or even Modern Family. So it’s a welcome development that Guest should now create (with Jim Piddock) his own series. Welcome—and surprising. Because Family Tree doesn’t play at all like Parks or Family. No punch lines, no zingers. It is still a distinctly Guest production: often poky, always charmingly whimsical and, from time to time, so astoundingly funny you seem to have shot into a distant stratosphere of pure comedy. Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) is Tom Chadwick, a glum Londoner without a job or girlfriend. When he inherits a trunk of jumbled mementos from a great aunt, he begins piecing together a family history that will ultimately lead him to America. In the first episodes, though, we’re in England, where his sister (Nina Conti), traumatized by a childhood incident at the zoo, talks through a monkey puppet, and much attention is paid to the fact that one ancestor played the back end of a vaudeville horse. The jokes start as saplings, then—whoosh!—look at that tree!

DaVinci’s Demons

Starz, Fridays, 9 p.m. ET/PT |


Look up “Renaissance man” in the dictionary—or in any secret encrypted codex, preserved for centuries in a dusty, booby-trapped trunk—and you’ll find “Leonardo DaVinci.” You can also find him as the hero of Starz’s lushly designed historical fantasy adventure. This Leo, who uses drugs to untether his imagination, is caught up in rival conspiracies by a powerful underground brotherhood and an evil pope. And then there are the Medicis, always unpleasant. To work, this overheated alchemy needs a magnetic Leo, but Tom Riley is miscast—too smart-alecky and brash. And he reminds me of American Idol winner David Cook. Distracting, no?


Sundance, Mondays, 10 p.m. ET/PT |


Sundance’s first original dramatic series feels damply airless—the tension might be ripped open at any moment by a thunderclap of revelation. Aden Young plays Daniel Holden, a convicted murderer just released from prison (and death row) after new DNA evidence surfaces. Many in his community still suspect he’s guilty: Why else would Daniel, then 18, have confessed to the rape and murder of a local girl nearly two decades ago? Young, an Australian actor in his first major TV role, plays Holden as detached, frightened, close to catatonic. You could say he is a shadow of his earlier self, except it’s more likely he’s a shadow of a shadow. It’s a disturbing, impressive performance.