It has come to my attention that many people have not seen Detroiters. Specifically, I was eating dinner with a group of people who I thought would have seen Detroiters, but who it turned out had not seen Detroiters at all, or who had seen only the first episode and then none of the rest. It was not difficult from there to extrapolate broader social trends.
Here is what I have to say about that: Detroiters is great! It is one of the best new shows in a year packed with shows that could be described as “one of the best new.” Unfortunately the first episode is pretty middling. Fortunately the rest of them range from “fine enough” to “very good” to “holy shit you guys.” It is funny and weird and specific and tender and gorgeously shot and directed, I mean wow. When I watch it I get the same giddy feeling I got watching 30 Rock or Strangers With Candy. Remember that feeling? It’s a good feeling. There are many TV shows I think you should not watch (cough) and only a few I think you really truly honestly right this minute should. Detroiters is one of those shows.
Here is the order in which you should watch it, but in reverse because that’s how we do these things.
In “Third Floor,” a hot young startup moves into the third floor of the building occupied by our heroes’ advertising agency, Cramblin Duvet. This is mostly a problem because back when that floor was unoccupied, Tim (Tim Robinson) and Sam (Sam Richardson) could use its bathroom for their lengthier and more malodorous bowel movements. The sudden change puts immense strain on their friendship, which complicates further when Sam starts hanging out with a lady who works for the startup. So basically the episode is one long poop joke escalated by a girl getting in between two guys. If you’ve watched any TV series about some dudes, you’ve probably seen this story already!
You have probably seen this one but I will tell you what it’s about anyway: two best friends who run an ad agency trying to win over a big client (Jason Sudeikis) and then accidentally running him down in their car and giving him amnesia and pretending they didn’t run him down after all, ha ha. The plot is standard sitcom stuff, but it lays out the basics of the series pretty efficiently. Tim and Sam are bffs and neighbors; Tim is married to Sam’s sister; Tim’s dad, who founded the agency, went insane at some point in the past and is presently institutionalized; their agency used to be a big player in the advertising game and now handles mostly small-potatoes clients, running the type of commercials you’d see at 4 p.m. on public access; they live in Detroit. Got it? Great. Okay, onwards and upwards.
Look: “Dream Cruise” is a fine episode. The boys drive around town on a greatest hits tour of their zaniest clients, trying to collect unpaid debts so they can cover their intern’s health insurance. Meanwhile the people of Detroit are holding the annual (maybe?) Dream Cruise, which appears to be a ‘50s throwback thing that mostly amounts to some fun art direction. Also Michael Che and Cecily Strong guest-star. Also there’s a pretty funny deus ex machina at the end. Not bad! But not great.
In the season finale it turns out that Tim and Sam’s true “unpaid debt” is to the guy they ran over in the pilot. You thought he wouldn’t find out, but guess what: He finds out. Threaded throughout their belabored admission of guilt is one of Detroiters’ better B-plots. Their client Rick Mahorn, a car salesman, overhears Sam describing him as a bad actor, and starts taking acting classes. Eventually he gets cast as the lead in a community theatre production—it’s like a weird Madea thing where he plays the mother and son characters—ultimately bringing the house down when the play opens. Tbh I don’t get why they made this episode the finale and not episode nine, which I’ll get to later, but I guess it has a nice circularity to it.
We have arrived at the part of the list where things start getting good. Whereas “Pilot” was an oppressively expositional intro to the series, “Hog Riders” pumps the brakes for a lazy feel-good story about Tim and Sam cruisin’ around Detroit on their brand new used motorcycle. They basically hand over their agency to the building’s pitch-rich security guard, whose first ad is a hit and whose every subsequent ad is pretty much the same ad. Come for the banter, stay for the sweet motorcycle montages.
The best episodes of Detroiters fully commit to the inexplicably grounded weirdness of its universe, in which Tim and Sam somehow keep going back and forth from straight men to total goons depending on who else is in the scene. “Devereux Wigs” manages this calculus better than most, as the guys try to persuade a local musical legend to record a jingle for their wig commercial. Zany antics ensue—there’s a great running gag about whether the wig company sources its hair from cadavers—but at the heart of the story is a very simple, touching conflict rooted in Sam’s reluctance to tell Tim he’s a bad singer.
Keegan-Michael Key stars as Smilin’ Jack, a Detroit furniture store merchant who smiles so widely on his billboards that everyone of them has a dick graffiti’d onto it. Tim and Sam write a commercial guaranteed to rehabilitate his image, but unfortunately Jack suuucks at acting. This makes for some vintage Keegan-Michael Key scenes as they struggle to film the ad, inevitably causing Tim to miss his friend Donut’s (a stellar Chris Redd) stand-up show. Solid stuff.
A thing I should’ve said earlier is that Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson are endlessly delightful in this show—quick, razor sharp and perfectly suited both for each other and Detroiters’ off-kilter universe. They are in especially fine form in “Sam the Man,” in which Sam unwittingly becomes a local politician’s go-to escort. He manages to convince himself they’re in a relationship—that she leaves him piles of cash for totally innocent reasons—as Tim tries to persuade him otherwise, while dealing with his own digestive issues. Yeah yeah, it’s another prolonged poop joke, but at least it’s the B-plot this time. Or, really, the C-plot—there’s also a thing where Tim and his wife (Sam’s sister) are kinda turned on by Sam’s new life, so they role-play their own version of it. Hijinks!
This episode is incredible. I don’t want to give too much away but oh man. Basically, Sam’s dad hosts an annual birthday soirée whose attendees are strongly encouraged to give him a speech. Sam has prepared a long list of jokes about Mr. Duvet’s mustache, only to discover that he’s shaved it off. He could wing it, but there’s one little problem with going in unprepared—his father ruthlessly publicly critiques every flaw in every speech after it’s delivered. The party comprises the entire episode, which again manages an incredible tightrope walk between wackily outlandish and totally realistic. In the same 22 minutes that we get a thought introduction to Sam’s family and his ex-girlfriend, Tim desperately pesters an off-duty clown to do something clownish, perhaps involving the table of pies. The confidence! The grace of it all! The running gag where everyone gets up and does the cha cha! Run, don’t walk.
“Husky Boys” is not just the best episode of Detroiters but one of the best sitcom episodes of the year. I love this episode even more than I do not love HBO’s Crashing. It embodies everything great about this golden age of television: as funny as it is touching, as textured as it is outlandish. Wrestler-slash-human giant Kevin Nash stars as Hank Cramblin, Tim’s father who’s finally out of the “asylum,” tall as hell and ready to get back to business. He quickly establishes himself as a master advertiser and a potent father figure for Tim and Sam both, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when they discover he was not released from the asylum—he escaped while the guards were on strike. The montage where they spend their last night together, visiting all of Hank’s favorite Detroit haunts, is as gorgeous as any sequence on Better Call Saul or Fargo. If you must watch only one episode of Detroiters, watch “Husky Boys.” Thank you and goodnight.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.