'The Detour': TV Review

Courtesy of TBS

Jason Jones and Natalie Zea go on a rocky road trip in TBS' uneven but funny new comedy.

If you're a cable network attempting to build or rebuild your comedy brand, there are worse strategies than going all-in on Samantha Bee and Jason Jones.

TBS' Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, featuring Jones as an executive producer, premiered in February to rapturous reviews and has already been extended for a full year of episodes, despite ratings which probably don't yet match Bee's well-deserved, media-anointed status as the comedy queen of this election cycle.

Up next for TBS is the road-trip comedy The Detour, starring Jones and co-created by Jones and Bee. Somewhat confusingly, The Detour has its official premiere on TBS on Monday, even though the pilot already aired multiple times after NCAA Tournament games and is currently available to view on several platforms. Premiere semantics aside, TBS has already renewed the series for a second season.

Think of The Detour as a strange combination of the Vacation movies, the Hangover movies and True Detective, a family comedy that isn't actually for the whole family, a weekly half-hour version of a raunchy R-rated movie comedy airing on a network that can only barely let it rise to PG-13 levels. Aggressively paced and often verging on manic, the first seven episodes are burdened and blessed by humorous digressions that don't always work and occasionally left me uncomfortable, but also had me laughing, sometimes hard, at an erratic but steady clip.

The basic story of The Detour is simple: Nate (Jones) and Robin (Natalie Zea) and kids Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich) and Jared (Liam Carroll) are driving from their home in Syracuse to a Florida vacation. It's supposed to take a couple of days, but car troubles, run-ins with local law enforcement, unforeseen medical misadventures and intervening wacky locals cause dramatic delays. As if that's not trouble enough, though, Nate caused a little professional trouble before he left town and he has ulterior motives once he hits Florida, fueling flashbacks and a framing device involving several law enforcement agencies, an interrogation and currently unspecified crimes. So if your primary question about The Detour is "How exactly are the events of a single road trip stretched across a season of TV?" the answer is "There's a lot going on here."

Often there's perhaps too much going on, as if Jones and Bee anticipated concerns that the show wouldn't have enough moving pieces and decided to add a few more. So even as Nate and Robin are making their way across the country dealing with a troubled mechanic named Davey (Judge Reinhold), a genteel doctor (Tom Amandes) with problematic romantic interests and the disinterested staff at a roadside hotel, there are subplots involving Robin's troubled sister Vanessa (Daniella Pineda), Nate's co-workers and a journalistically unmotivated lifestyle blogger. And then there's the ostensible heart of the show, which is Robin and Nate's attempts to also be good parents to the precocious Delilah and the amusingly dim Jared, which is likely to cause some unease for some viewers, because although they're entirely well-meaning, Robin and Nate are often forced into questionable nurturing choices when it comes to drugs, alcohol, sex, driving and more.

Bee and Jones, who wrote the pilot together and are credited as individuals on the majority of the early scripts, enjoy taking classic sitcom scenarios — Daughter's Awkward First Period, How Mom & Dad First Met Flashback, Dinner at a Wacky Theme Restaurant, Teaching Son to Drive, etc. — and pushing them to extremes. And when you're dealing with extremes, you're apparently sometimes going to bookend an episode with a mixture of explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting, and if you're The Detour, you're going to commit to those bodily functions with reckless abandon, and that won't be for everybody.

But it's that same reckless abandon that leads to the admirably committed and fairly inspired menu, stage show and corporate ethos at Conquistadors, the "culturally insensitive roadside restaurant" that contributes to the aforementioned intestinal distress. And it's the same full comedic determination that leads to an impressively protracted and graphic birds-and-bees talk and to a level of farce in the Amandes-driven subplot that's sure to raise some eyebrows. Some viewers may take a little time to shake off the show's occasional misses — child endangerment and car-coating puke aren't for everybody — but when the show hits, it hits with sharp and intelligent writing, versatile direction and performances that honor the insanity of it all.

If you're like me and you sometimes suffer from the condition known as Jason Jones/Ed Helms Face Blindness, The Detour isn't going to help, especially since two of the three points of reference I gave above have been tied to Ed Helms. I think Jones is Helms' slightly more muscular, Canadian, Samantha Bee-adjacent equivalent, but I admire both actors for their ability to thoroughly abandon dignity for a punchline. In Jones' case here, that means occasional pixilated nudity and several escalating levels of flailing frustration. It also means letting Zea carry the funny bits as appropriate. Zea gets to do a variety of shadings of drunk, high and hungover and rarely gets reduced to disapproving spouse, but even though she certainly gets to indulge in her share of the iffy parenting, Robin could still use some more shaping as a character. Although Jared and Delilah are pint-sized packages of inconsistent quirks, both Gerasimovich and Carroll land jokes without needless precociousness. 

For a show going in as many different directions as The Detour does, the pieces of the narrative seem to be connecting well past the halfway point in the first season. The episode-to-episode continuity adds up nicely if you like your comedies heavily serialized, and there are hints that some of the elements that feel disparate and chaotic could also tie together.

Cast: Jason Jones, Natalie Zea, Ashley Gerasimovich, Liam Carroll
Creators: Jason Jones and Samantha Bee
Airs: Mondays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (TBS)

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