In Detroiters, Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson play best friends, business partners, brothers-in-law, and big-league buffoons who constantly make ill-advised decisions, then rebound from them just in time to make more. This is a show about the audacity of dopes with hope.
The new Comedy Central series, debuting tonight at 10:30, is also an opportunity for Richardson (Richard Splett of Veep) and Robinson (former featured player and writer for Saturday Night Live) to dive into absurd situations and physical comedy with an admirable lack of inhibition. There is no ridiculous moment whose boundaries can’t be pushed that much further, into even more ridiculous territory.
In the first episode, during an office brainstorming session that turns into a Nerf basketball game, Sam (both the leads play eponymously named characters) slams his elbow into a glass-paned door frame. But the glass doesn’t break. The friends are so amazed that they start chucking various objects at it to see if they can finally shatter it. This goes on for a full minute and a half, until they finally decide to pick up a desk and heave it toward the glass. At which point, the entire desk collapses.
That sequence is a metaphor for the Richardson-Robinson approach to comedy, and to the attitude of Detroiters in general. No matter how discouraging their circumstances, Sam and Tim — best friends and Detroit natives in real life — find a way to pick themselves back up and plow forward, even when it’s obvious that things will probably fall apart. Since the show is both set and shot in Michigan’s Motor City, a town that’s become a symbol for economic decline, there is an underlying poignancy in watching these two Americans continue believing they can persevere.
The premise of Detroiters is less a premise than a concrete slab on which Richardson and Robinson lay joke-brick after joke-brick. But essentially it’s this: Sam Duvet (Richardson) and Tim Cramblin (Robinson) who’s married to Sam’s sister, Chrissy (Shawntay Dalon), co-run Cramblin Advertising, an agency once overseen by Tim’s dad until he apparently had a mental breakdown and handed over the business, which doesn’t appear to have changed its decor or strategy since the early 1970s. As a result, Tim and Sam spend much of their time creating low-rent local TV ads that make the ones Jimmy McGill oversees on Better Call Saul look like auteurist works of art. When they’re not doing that, they’re either trying to drum up new business — in the first episode, they aggressively attempt to pitch a Chrysler executive (Jason Sudeikis, an executive producer along with Lorne Michaels) — or trying to live their best lives while paying little attention to the things that might help them achieve that goal.
The scenes that take place within the Cramblin Advertising environment are often the funniest; at times, watching Detroiters feels like observing what happens when a pair of Second City alums get access to the Mad Men set and decide to go improv-crazy. A later episode, in which Sam is accidentally mistaken for a male prostitute, then decides to embrace it, is funnier in theory than execution. But even in that episode, what sells the antics is the chemistry between its leads and the fun they’re so clearly having together.
Richardson, who makes Richard’s cluelessness so endearingly pathetic on Veep, is an oblivious figure here, too, but not nearly to the same degree. Unlike Richard Splett, Detroiters Sam is able to read social situations correctly. It’s just that, at a certain point, he decides he doesn’t care about norms and just does what he feels like. Robinson’s Tim is the more codependent and immature of the two; even though he’s happily married, he still needs his best buddy to come over and rub his tummy when he has a stomachache.
Together, these two are double Don Quixotes, tilting at advertising windmills and holding onto a bond that simultaneously sustains them and, the show implies, especially in Sam’s case, holds them back from becoming their best selves. Yet the comedy on Detroiters doesn’t quite fall in the cringey category. Neither of these guys are Richard Brents who regard themselves more highly than anyone else in their orbits. They’re just a couple of regular guys who are loyal to each other and to their city, and that grounds the comedy in an against-the-odds optimism that supersedes the squirminess.
For obvious reasons, it wouldn’t make sense to name this show It’s Always Sunny in Detroit. But that’s the vibe it exudes. Even in a city supposedly in decline, here are two men who refuse to believe there’s anywhere to go but up. Given what screwups they are, that’s not quite inspiring, necessarily. But it’s pretty damn funny. And given how hard it is to find a laugh these days, that counts for something.