Opinion | ‘The Detour’ is the funniest show you’ve never seen
This show about a family on the run transcends the limits of the live-action sitcom and more closely resembles animated lunacy
Could there be a better comedy for our times than a show about hand sanitizer?
The Detour—created by former correspondents of The Daily Show Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, and streaming in India on Amazon Prime Video—is a comedy on the run, a show about a family scrambling and improvising while the show around them does the same at breakneck pace, the stakes getting higher and situations increasingly outlandish. So bizarre are the show’s plot lines that The Detour transcends the limits of the live-action sitcom and more closely resembles animated lunacy: Think Rick And Morty or Archer, shows where no gag is too much and yet the plot seems somehow plausible in context, thanks to unflinching commitment to the joke, and brilliantly self-referential callbacks.
It is ridiculously easy, in fact, to dismiss The Detour as a broad sitcom till you look closely at its breadth. The first episode—where a man lies to his wife about a family road trip, and their two kids indulge in back-seat hijinks—is so obviously farcical that canned laughter wouldn’t be out of place, yet there’s a peculiar urgency as the jokes build to something larger. Throwaway gags escalate to something far more awkward, more masterful. The Detour is shockingly unhinged, with a rollickingly amoral vibe. And because anything goes, this well-meaning family is thrown into the most inappropriate situations: from participating in sadistic Japanese game shows to accidentally helping paedophiles get married.
It’s quite a foursome. Mom and dad are consistently buffeted by explosive revelations about each other’s past, while the kids try to keep up but invariably fall behind, creating their own messes as they go along. The husband is a former hockey goon now trying to do his best and think before he punches, the multitalented wife is married many times over (though not to the man you might expect), while the twins, a bright girl and a dim boy, are growing up and realizing no rules apply in the real world. Behind them are federal law enforcement agencies, word-coining lawyers, sleazy bosses, and family members so hideous they make these four look decidedly normal.
Where does the hand sanitizer come in? You will have to find out. This is a 2016 show I only heard of a few weeks ago, and nobody I know has watched its four uproarious seasons. This column is an attempt to change that.
Jason Jones, co-creator of the show, plays Nate Parker Jr—pronounced by a hotel clerk as “ParkerJer"—a halfwit constantly biting off more than he should attempt to chew. Jones walks an uncommon tightrope to emerge truly likeable and utterly obnoxious at the same time, and as the series takes wilder and wilder narrative swings, he grows as a performer and ends up creating a genuinely compelling oaf. The kids are excellent: Ashley Gerasimovich is believably sharp yet vulnerable as Delilah, and Liam Carroll’s Jared (or is it Jareb?) is vacant as well as sly. Nobody on this show is just one thing.
This is truest for Robin Randall, played by Natalie Zea of Justified. Zea rapidly swaps accents, character motivations and even entire genres, as the show flings her into all manner of madness: One minute she’s a stripper, the next she’s her own wicked Southern twin. The only thing Robin always, always remains, is 39. Zea embraces the bonkers role unapologetically—with perfect, deadpan timing—and grounds the show by making Robin barely reasonable enough, making her frequent exasperation and occasional earnestness feel real. Root for her. Just don’t tell her to relax.
This is high energy comedy. The opening credits vary each time, culminating in a looping video clip of clumsiness from the previous episode— the recap is a GIF. The show balances wicked wordplay, gross-out humour, puerile gags, visual asides, and pushes the envelope in terms of offensiveness and taboos, while keeping it delightfully meta and self-aware—the only mention of co-creator Samantha Bee, the trailblazing host of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, comes from cartoonishly woke college students berating a girl for wearing kitten heels.
There are unexpected swerves throughout, with both characters and the show going too far. One character, for instance, steals the sperm of a man she’s meant to investigate—and may be related to. There are episodes involving funeral homes, Moscow rooftops and fake cowboy towns. A more radical episode is spent entirely in shark-infested waters as an annoyed Robin and a drunk Nate fall out of a boat and argue about their marriage. The Detour is confident enough to get some. Here is a show fearless enough to be stupid, and stupid enough to be fearless.
You should know that, like the characters on this show, I lied. Despite the way this column began, The Detour is not a show of our times per se—it was sadly cancelled last year, after four fantastic seasons. It is also not, by any means, a show about sanitizer, though that serves both as a great McGuffin, and as a most appropriate metaphor. This is, after all, a comedy that loves getting its hands dirty.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.