TBS

The Detour: A (Surprisingly Fun) Family Road Trip To Disaster

Jason Jones and Natalie Zea's comedy brings the R-rated spirit of the Vacation movies to TV

The Detour’s first shock lands early and anatomically. Stalled on the side of the road, weary dad Nate (Jason Jones) presses against his minivan from behind, but the blue hulk won’t budge. Nate’s wife Robin (Justified’s Natalie Zea) stands by his side, but her hands rest on her hips. “You’re so quick to give up on pushing,” scolds their preteen daughter Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich). “I guess that’s why we weren’t born vaginally.”

Soon after, Delilah has to contend with her own lady parts when she gets her period for the first time in an establishment where the female body is openly admired but not necessarily respected. The Parkers’ road trip from Syracuse to Fort Lauderdale is off to a rough start, but, as the pilot reveals in the show’s generous and welcome time jumps, it was doomed before the family’s seat belts were buckled.

Created by Jones and Samantha Bee and based on the real-life couple’s experiences, The Detour is a Vacation movie translated for basic cable, with slightly better female roles and a pocket blade’s worth of political edge. (Both Daily Show vets have made a home for themselves at TBS, which also airs Bee’s wonderfully prickly news comedy, Full Frontal.) Jones steers into the familiar -- none of this is stuff we haven’t seen before -- but the sitcom’s darker undertones and the breathless pacing of the jokes make the time in the car worth it.

As on most road trips onscreen, The Detour is an advertisement for family togetherness, since everyone around the protagonists is a repulsive weirdo, from the drug-addicted cat-sitter (cast member Danielle Pineda) to the genocide-celebrating priest (“We won!” he sings about the Aztecs). The adult Parkers, in contrast, are just relatable fuckups; like them, we’re annoyed by, but can’t hate, their 11-year-old twins, blithe little shits to a pair. (Liam Carroll plays Jared, who gleefully informs his sister during an impromptu sex-ed talk that semen looks like a white map of Hawaii.) As might be expected of both 2010s comedies and long hours in a car with children, various bodily fluids are flung at unsuspecting victims. The way their journey is going, that warm wetness feels about as close to a Florida beach as the Parkers are ever going to get.

Each of the four great episodes to run so far has been stacked high with panic and incident; the trip doesn’t just go askew but tumbles toward catastrophe. But the cannonballing calamities are grounded by the serialized mystery about Nate’s whistleblowing-gone-awry, an attempt to do the right thing undermined by incompetence that got the pharma employee fired and close to bankruptcy.

Having not yet screwed up the courage to tell his wife, Nate’s desire to give his kids one great family vacation before he has to go back to the nothingness that is his life back home adds a heartbreakingly woeful and desperate tint to each mishap. In the second installment, there’s a cathartic break in the wall: Nate’s able to cry for the first time in years while updating his wife on his employment status. Unfortunately for him but thankfully for us, Robin’s not the type whose character description is prewritten by a Mother’s Day card. Nate’s confession goes unheard; his wife is high above him, riding carefree on pot-infused gummy worms.

The woman who does learn of Nate’s joblessness is his mother, played by a thus-far-unseen Bee. She’s promisingly poised for a return later in the season, along with the answers to why Nate is being investigated by a federal official (the aptly named Mary Grill) and how the hipster-trash journalist/lifestyle blogger (Taylor Kowalski) entrusted with evidence of corporate wrongdoing might actually do something right. As the longer story lines effectively elaborate, the Parkers are in a much bigger crisis than they realize. Watching a family’s inevitable collision with disaster in slo-mo from different angles shouldn’t be this fun, but I’m glad it is.