Review: ‘Detectorists’

 

My discovery of Detectorists was a happy Netflix accident.  I wasn’t aware that it existed until I saw it one night while scrolling through an uninspiring array of choices. I didn’t know that it was an acclaimed British comedy series.  I didn’t know anything about it at all.  But the premise was interesting, and I enjoy the British sense of humor, so I gave it a go. A quick warning: some of the things I mention in this review might be considered mild spoilers, but nothing will ruin the show. The plot isn’t the important part.  The characters and their relationships are what matter.

Detectorists stars Mackenzie Crook (The Office, Pirates of the Caribbean) and Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger, Hunger Games). The show follows Andy (Crook) and Lance (Jones), two friends of middle age who are united by a common interest: wandering the countryside of their native Essex with metal detectors. They’re ostensibly searching for gold in a literal sense, the burial of the East Saxon king Sexred, but the quest is symbolic as well.  Happiness is really what they’re looking for.

Season one sees both Andy and Lance wrestling with relationships.  Andy is trying to navigate his commitment to his girlfriend, Becky.  Lance still carries feelings for his ex-wife, Maggie, who continues to take advantage of him and his inability to move on.  Andy is struggling to hold on to what he’s got and Lance is learning to let go.  Andy and Lance are insightful when it comes to each other’s problems, but (as is often the case in life) they aren’t handling their own situations that well.

If season one is about relationships, the overarching theme of season two is children. It picks up a year after the events of season one.  Andy and Becky are new parents of a baby boy and contemplating a big change to their life.  Becky is more of a free spirit, willing to throw caution to the wind and embark on an adventure.  Andy is more conservative by comparison, more concerned with taking care of his family and maintaining stability for his newborn.  Lance is getting to know his adult daughter, Kate, the product of a relationship that ended two decades prior.  He wants a typical father/daughter relationship, but is in danger of smothering Kate and scaring her off.  Included on Netflix is a Christmas special that serves as a nice coda for the second season.

Much like the hobby that serves as the series connective tissue, Detectorists is quiet and meditative.  That might sound like an odd description for a comedy, but it works.  The pace is easy and the comedy is anchored in real life.  It’s grounded in its characters and their foibles, their relationships, and their attempts to navigate ordinary life.

The best comedies have colorful secondary characters, and Detectorists is no different.  Andy and Lance are members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club (the DMDC.)  Most of the other characters of the series are fellow members of this group.  These characters don’t have tons of screen time individually, but each of them is allowed a few moments to shine.  The actors have done a lot with their sometimes-limited screen time, and each gets the opportunity to provide a few good laughs.

A continuing plot element through both seasons is the DMDC’s competitive relationship with a rival gang of metal detectorists.  This is also the source of a running joke about their resemblance to an American folk duo.  In fact, jokes are sometimes set up a few episodes in advance for a later payoff.  The comedy is very deliberately paced.  Soft chuckles and knowing smiles are inspired in the viewer as much as outright laughs.

The natural beauty of Essex is prominently displayed in both wide shots and close ups in each episode, providing a very specific and enchanting setting for the stories that unfold.  This is a real strength of Detectorists, as is the appreciation that Crook (who also wrote and directed the show) obviously has for history.  The opening of season two’s first episode takes place during the Anglo-Saxon period and results in a happy (if telegraphed) payoff in the final episode.

I was charmed by this show from the start.  It’s a realistic, bittersweet take on the problems of adulthood told with genuine sensitivity towards the characters.  Oftentimes sitcoms get laughs at the expense of their characters.  They can be mean-spirited and blunt.  Sitcom humor is often too “on the nose” and lowbrow for my taste, but there is none of that here.  Crook likes these people and he wants us to like them too.  They aren’t perfect.  Their flaws and faults are shown in context, however.  Rather than causing us to dislike certain characters (other than the cartoonish “rogue” detectorists) we see that these are people like us.  They fuss and feud.  They bicker.  Sometimes they say things to each other that aren’t nice. Nevertheless, they’re friends.

A third and final season of Detectorists just finished up in January and there is no word yet of when it might make its way to Netflix.  I will be looking out for it though.  Searching for it.  No metal detector needed.