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Courtesy of TBS

May 8, 2016

The American Family Veers Off-Road: The Detour

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As someone who watches comedy TV a lot — and I mean a lot — I’ve found that there’s one key ingredient in creating a successful TV comedy: don’t make your show based on a funny plot; make it based on funny characters. Write good characters, and the good plots will come.

The Detour, created by The Daily Show power couple Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, completely fails this litmus test for a sustainable, quality TV comedy. The new TBS series follows a family of four attempting to drive to a relaxing beach vacation, finding themselves embroiled in misadventure after misadventure. To make things more complicated, father Nate Parker (Jones) recently lost his job at a nefarious biopharmaceutical company and keeps this hidden from his family, paving the way for even more clandestine antics as he tries to frame his ex-employer for unethical behavior. The first few episodes enter into a similar pattern: a typical road-trip activity goes awry, disaster ensues, Nate reveals another element of his plot to destroy Big Pharma to the audience and — without any real resolution — the family pursues on.

The Detour is so plot-heavy that it initially seems like nothing other than a classic road-trip comedy. On the surface, The Detour is almost identical to the 2006 film RV, except without the quippiness of Robin Williams and with way more cable-TV raunchiness. But despite relying largely on its terrifically horrible plot to move itself forwards, The Detour somehow manages to turn its initially banal concept on its head, finding more nuance hidden beneath the gruesome physical comedy. The Detour, initially appearing solely as an edgy anti-family comedy, ultimately becomes a lampoon of the stereotypical white American family somewhere along its journey.
Nate and his wife Robin (Natalie Zea) are the quintessential liberal, upper-middle class parents, outwardly perfect but painted as dysfunctional for comedic effect.

Although The Detour still falls prey to the hackneyed tropes that nearly every flawed family on TV employs (questionable alcoholism, a lackluster sex life, secret reversions to irresponsible activities, among others) it manages to latently break ground in lesser-charted discussions of the liberal white family. The Parkers constantly attempt to be “woke” white people in situations that beg political incorrectness, trying to defensively demonstrate their moral principles. In the episode titled “The Restaurant,” the family stops at a roadside restaurant named “Conquistador’s,” and Nate desperately attempts to make it clear to everyone that he finds this blatant commercialization of the immoral conquest of indigenous peoples disgusting. Ironically, Nate ends up using a racial slur out of context, and gets ensnared in a big dispute with multiple restaurant employees. The scene is excellent; Nate is beautifully confused, aggravated and defensive all at once, perfectly summarizing the internal commotion of the white liberal.

This critical look at the liberal white family extends past race relations and enters the contradictions of liberal parenting. Nate and Robin end up having to teach their kids about sex and alcohol throughout the roadtrip due to sheer circumstance, often doing so out of pure misunderstanding. What the parents think are their children’s sexual explorations are actually innocent, non-sexual shenanigans, such as when son Jared (Liam Carroll) rubs lotion on the television in order to warp the image on the screen, then wipes it off with tissues, leaving a supposedly masturbatory mess behind. Regardless of whether or not they are warranted, the parents’ attempts to explain mature concepts to their children are often riddled with inconsistency and dispute, accurately portraying the implicit conflict between showing children the often gruesome realities of the adult world and simultaneously trying to act as responsible, well-adjusted role models. The result is a well-executed parody of parenthood and perfection, juxtaposing politesse with anger to illustrate the frustration inherent in maintaining balance in a family.

While The Detour novelly tackles the TV family with subtlety, its comedy still doesn’t quite hit home, leaving the audience with few laugh-out-loud moments. Although the show has its occasional well-written quip, it generally resorts to physical humor and crudity in order to extort laughs from the viewer. The few moments of absurdity are often those with the most comedic zing: a hotel employee refers to Nate Parker Jr. as “Mr. Parkerjer,” an old man with a wine-stained shirt follows the family and speaks in a quasi-Shakespearean tongue and a Russian woman sings a song about Russia annexing every surrounding nation. Perhaps the only supplement to the show’s heavy reliance on the disaster-driven comedy is each episode’s lack of a fulfilling resolution. In a manner similar to Seinfeld or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Detour doesn’t ever truly resolve the problems it creates. The family ends up back in their car, moving on with their trip, en route to their next adventure.

In a way, the lack of explicit conflict resolution is reminiscent of the show’s authentic portrayal of parenthood and family. The Detour ultimately gives the viewer a simple suggestion: Things don’t always come to a neat end. Sometimes, you’ve just got to get back in your minivan and drive on.

Pegah Moradi is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at pm443@cornell.edu. 

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