The Detour probably should’ve been a 90-minute road trip movie. But we’re lucky no one told TBS as much, because it’s turned out to be a pretty great TV show.
Created by married Daily Show alums Jason Jones and Samantha Bee and returning this week for season two, the family comedy is in no way a family comedy in the heartwarming Modern Family or Black-ish style. In its 10-episode first season, The Detour proved itself to be more like The Hangover by way of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, following Nate Parker (Jones) as he dragged his family on a road trip to Florida that became more depraved with every passing episode.
The road trip — disastrous or otherwise — is a simple, proven structure for movies. Two hours is more than enough time for characters to indulge in roadside antics and meet bizarre people during their journey, without overstaying their welcome onscreen. The road trip format has worked for movies as different in tone as Thelma & Louise and Rat Race, both of which are great in their own ways but could’ve easily been derailed if they had 10 hours to burn.
So as a TV show, The Detour could’ve been an exhausting chain of random tangents — but thanks to a couple of crucial and smart choices, the show’s just a hell of a lot of fun.
The first and most important thing The Detour got right was its casting. Jones plays a slightly more grown-up version of his fratty Daily Show correspondent persona. Nate enjoys crushing a beer and being awesome, but he also has a family and the responsibility of having to care about things like, you know, supporting it.
Nate’s two kids are Jared and Delilah, a pair of blunt twins, and they’re the first sign of The Detour’s casting excellence. Usually you can see the seams on child acting — or at least the vague strain of a kid trying to remember lines and emote at the same time — but Liam Carroll and Ashley Gerasimovich play their parts so effortlessly that they’ve made me choke on my seltzer multiple times with their matter-of-fact line readings.
But The Detour’s most important coup was in casting Natalie Zea as Nate’s wife Robin — though Robin would no doubt verbally (and fairly) eviscerate me for describing her as simply “Nate’s wife.” Think of the character as Always Sunny’s Sweet Dee, if Sweet Dee were forced to become Modern Family’s Claire Dunphy and deeply resented it.
Zea’s varied résumé includes recurring roles on dramas (Justified, The Following) and soap operas (Passions) alike, but in The Detour, she not only proves her comic timing bona fides opposite Jones but steals almost every scene she’s in by delivering Robin’s jokes with a casual shrug. In the second episode of the first season, Zea even managed to breathe new life into a standard “someone accidentally has way too much of a weed edible” storyline by making Robin such an endearing, spacey flirt that it’s impossible not to be charmed.
With this rock-solid cast at its center, The Detour’s first season was able to spin off in wild directions that almost felt more appropriate for a Will Ferrell movie than a family sitcom. And the show built on its canny casting with dynamic direction that made it look more like a blockbuster movie than a TBS comedy, plus skilled editing — featuring tight cuts between storylines and sporadic flashbacks to even wilder times — that sharpened jokes to wicked points.
The Detour is bringing a similar approach to its second season, which takes place 19 months after the season one finale. This time, though, the Parkers aren’t making an arduous journey to Tampa; they’re trying to navigate living in New York City. But as it turns out, the Parkers don’t need to be on the road to accidentally trigger chaos, and so their new life in the city kicks off with predictably disastrous results.
Yes, of course Nate and Robin want to show their kids a good wholesome time. It’s just that they repeatedly stumble into completely twisted situations — and often find themselves having way too much fun to back off from them entirely.
These moments when Nate and Robin see a weird situation coming, say “fuck it” and give in to their inner heathens are some of the show’s best, in large part thanks to Jones and Zea’s commitment. No episode shows this off better than season one’s fourth episode (“The Restaurant”), in which Nate and Robin agree to stop at a kitschy theme restaurant that turns out to be more like a rabbit hole of confusing cultural appropriation and vodka-soaked depravity.
That kind of dissonance between classic family hijinks and twisted debauchery is exactly what makes The Detour such a fantastic ride. And if there are bumps along the way ... well, that’s all part of the journey.