Jason Jones and Samantha Bee are making a strong bid to be anointed as the First Couple of TV comedy. At the very least, they’ve earned that title at TBS, with “The Daily Show” alumni collaborating on Bee’s “Full Frontal,” and now “The Detour,” a scripted sitcom about a road trip gone terribly wrong that hits the ground running and merits the network’s “Very funny” slogan – at times explosively so. Even with the occasional fits and starts, “The Detour” looks like one of those shows that’s worth going out of one’s way to find.
At first blush, the series (Bee and Jones wrote the premiere, directed by Steve Pink) looks like a teased-out version of the “Vacation” movies, with Jones’ Nate taking his wife Robin (“Justified’s” Natalie Zea) and their cusp-of-puberty twins (Ashley Gerasimovich, Liam Carroll) on a road trip from Syracuse to Ft. Lauderdale. Never mind that mom thought they were flying, and is somewhat shocked to wake up realizing they’re driving through Pennsylvania.
Gradually, the show uses various devices – jumping ahead and back – to establish a broader framework, with Nate having been fired from his job and clearly pursuing some sort of mission related to that. Then there’s the little matter, in subsequent episodes, of the grilling he’s receiving from law-enforcement authorities, suggesting things have even gone far worse than even their more bizarre adventures would indicate.
In the seven episodes previewed, those interludes include an inadvertent trip to a strip club, Robin getting ridiculously high in a hotel and stealing Nate’s pants, a bout with food poisoning (think “Stand By Me”), and the whole brood taking refuge at a sumptuous bed and breakfast that appears, and inevitably is, too good to come without strings attached.
Jones and Bee have already exhibited an admirable fearlessness in their comedy, and “The Detour” takes similar chances, pushing boundaries without tumbling over them taste-wise. That includes questionable parenting decisions – frequently leaving the children understandably horrified – plenty of blurred nakedness, hilarious misunderstandings and a whole lot of errant bodily fluids.
Yet if it’s not exactly highbrow or subtle, the episodes and narrative arc are structured in a more ambitious way than initially meets the eye. Not only do individual chapters start with some enormous foul-up and then go back to illustrate how the family got there, but the overarching plots – both about Nate’s work and why the feds are after him – are spooned out in such a way as to lend a nice serialized component to the broader hijinks. (The network has given the show the ultimate vote of confidence, ordering a second season in advance of its premiere.)
With Bee’s show having quickly become a go-to source of acerbic satire, “The Detour” has given TBS and its new management team – which shrewdly pushed the show during its NCAA Tournament coverage – a formidable one-two punch, while further validating “The Daily Show’s” reputation under former host Jon Stewart as a launch pad of comedy talent. It’s also a welcome reminder that a comedy needn’t reinvent the wheel to feel as if it’s clicking on all cylinders.