Recently in the sitcom world, there has been an influx of successful family comedies. It’s not that the family comedy ever really went out of style, but it did sit on the backburner for a bit when networks began to focus more on twenty-somethings looking for love in big cities. The critical and commercial success of ABC’s Modern Family seemed to reinvigorate the genre (regardless of your feelings of the staleness of Modern Family in its current seventh season, there’s no denying that it’s a juggernaut), leading to many similar but slightly tweaked variations of the same theme. TBS’ The Detour, which premieres tonight, is yet another family comedy – but it’s main goal is to ensure that it’s not family friendly.
Created by The Daily Show alums and real-life married couple Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, The Detour most resembles National Lampoon’s Vacation. In the pilot, Nate (Jones) and his wife Robin (Natalie Zea; though Bee has writing credits, she doesn’t appear on screen, likely because she’s busy with her other TBS show Full Frontal) are a mismatched but perfect for each other couple who are busy parenting their twins Jared (Liam Carroll) and Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich). It all sounds pretty basic, but The Detour employs a clever twist: it takes place entirely on a vacation road trip from Syracuse, New York to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
This creative decision means that The Detour comes prepackaged with all the road trips hijinks you can imagine. Angry truckers, culturally insensitive roadside restaurants, traffic jams, broken-down minivans, creepy mechanics/police officers/bed & breakfast owners, and so on. What sets The Detour apart from becoming just another series of comic mishaps is that the series really likes to ramp up the awkwardness and stupidity on the road, and it loves to pile on until the entire trip seems like it’s about to collapse under the weight of this family just trying to keep it together. A misunderstanding that leads the family to a strip club in an attempt to buy milkshakes also involves their daughter getting her first period; a too-good-to-be-true bed and breakfast results in something truly dark and disturbing – but I don’t want to spoil it here.
See, The Detour lives up to its name: On the straight path from New York to Florida, the family swerves into various twists and turns, zig-zagging into situations that are surprisingly twisted for a TBS sitcom. What’s more – and again, I don’t want to spoil the fun – after a basic pilot sets up the normal van-breaks-down and kids-do-something-stupid roadtrip expectations, the episode suddenly veers entirely off course to become something more than a family comedy: a confusing but engaging mystery – a shocker at the end of an episode that involved urine thrown into a man’s face, multiple times. (Yes, to be clear, The Detour does love its gross-out humor, from piss to shit to just oversharing.) Throughout the first seven episodes sent out to critics, The Detour tweaks the basic family sitcom/road trip formula and cleverly uses time jumps, flashbacks, and unreliable characters (like many couples, Nate and Robin remember things much differently, as we see in “The Road,” an episode that has the parents telling their children very different stories of how they met).
The parents are beautifully flawed people, each trying to keep things together while holding back mini outbursts of anger and frustration (and Robin, especially, uses alcohol and weed gummies to help keep this in check). They love their children but are aware of the realities of parenting, meaning The Detour doesn’t provide a rose-colored view of family but instead one that is equally honest and funny.