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The warts-and-all urban love song has long been a musical staple — think The Standell’s “Dirty Water” or Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” — and thanks to production incentives and cable proliferation, it’s becoming a more practical TV option.
Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which will bask in the glory of a superb first season until its 2018 return, leads the vanguard of comedies looking to refocus TV’s perspective on city space away from the New York/Los Angeles/Chicago stranglehold. It isn’t enough to just set your show in a different city, because as much as I enjoy NBC’s Superstore, I’m not going to think of it as a “Kansas City” show. You have to be on the ground on location, prepared to show both postcard locations and, when appropriate, accurately reflected blight. [It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia exists in a middle ground in which it’s obviously a series spawned by and fueled by Philadelphia, but it primarily shoots in L.A.]
AIR DATE Feb 07, 2017
[Correction: Superstore is actually set in St. Louis, of course. This proves my sloppiness and my point.]
Created by Sam Richardson, Tim Robinson, Joe Kelly and Zach Kanin, Comedy Central’s new series Detroiters isn’t as ambitious or formally experimental as Atlanta, but I think it aspires to celebrate and validate its native city in some of the same ways. Richardson and Robinson make for likable leads and Detroiters is savvy and funny in many ways, but what really made it work for me was the admirable affection that comes from its love for Detroit.
Richardson and Robinson play Sam and Tim, lifelong friends and Detroiters. They live next door to each other, watch the garbage trucks roll out at dawn together, share breakfast hot dogs with each other and they’re also working hard to help resurrect the advertising firm Tim’s father started. For now, they’re steadily producing ultra-cheap late-night spots for local businesses, but they’re still able to dream big, including landing a big pitch to a Chrysler bigwig (played by Detroiters executive producer Jason Sudeikis in the pilot).
Detroiters isn’t just a two-man show, but it’s narratively thin. In one episode, the guys get a motorcycle. In another, Sam is mistaken for a gigolo. Nothing that happens to the guys is all that memorable, but guest stars like Sudeikis and Malcolm-Jamal Warner help make up for the limited ensemble. And, cliché though it may be, the third major character in the show is Detroit.
Sam and Tim are dedicated to their city, and their attempts to lift their agency from a point of ruin are meant to not-too-subtly mirror the ongoing and slow-moving Detroit renaissance. In the three episodes sent to critics, the duo navigate through a wide range of Detroit locations, ranging from ghost town-looking industrial spaces to highlights from one of the most architecturally varied downtown areas in the country. They don’t make Detroit look like a vibrant, peaking city, but they emphasize Detroit’s diversity and the city’s solid bone structure, as it were. The attempted rebuild is mirrored in the ramshackle house Sam is renovating, one of many in the city that would look like multi-story mansions, only with boarded-up windows and gutted interiors. Detroiters has a good sense of the geography and infrastructure of the city and also its vernacular, from a collective love of Vernors ginger ale to the infiltrating lilt of Canadian hockey tourists.
Richardson and Robinson also have a good sense of the language of local advertising. The ads they’re pitching and producing are the closest thing the show comes to structure and also to a reliable source of punchlines. As with the treatment of the city itself, Detroiters is able to mock artistry that goes into promoting the eyeglass emporiums and hot tub retailers without lampooning the idea of small businesses trying to use a media buy to make a break. Detroiters isn’t always hilarious, but it has a great generosity of spirit.
The generosity also extends to Richardson and Robinson’s treatment of Sam and Tim, who are sometimes treated as well-meaning innocents, but never exactly infantilized. I think they’re just people who have been looked down on long enough that they no longer possess any self-consciousness and, more than that, they’ve relied exclusively on each other for long enough that their behavior together is without reservation. So the show gets some warmth out of their sweet, friendly co-dependence and laughs out of the moments they break loose. Several of the early episodes contain scenes of clearly improvised anarchy as the guys do things like test the integrity of a police auction van or the surprisingly strong windows in their office. It’s less dancing like nobody’s watching and more living your life like only your best friend is watching, and Richardson and Robinson, best known for stealing scenes on Veep and being conspicuously wasted on Saturday Night Live, are enjoying this spotlight moment.
Detroit is also enjoying getting to play itself as something other than a dystopian wasteland, just as Atlanta has welcomed the chance in things like Atlanta and Survivor’s Remorse to be more than just a generic stand-in for Everytown, USA.
Good comedy is specific and organic to the place it comes from, and I hope that the success of shows like Detroiters inspire more comics to go back to their roots and take cameras with them.
Cast: Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson
Creators: Sam Richardson, Tim Robinson, Joe Kelly and Zach Kanin
Premieres: Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (Comedy Central)
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