TV Rewind: If You Need a Dose of Quiet Minimalism (and You Do), Watch DetectoristsPhoto Courtesy of BBC Four TV Features Detectorists
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If you are overwhelmed with the current state of the world but know that apathy is not the answer—if you struggle to turn off your antennae, much less your laptop—then at least spare a couple hours for a BBC comedy that lets the cheap theater of the political and the material world fade into the background, and instead spends its time in the examination of human beings.
In classic British fashion, Detectorists ran for 19 episodes over three seasons, and it wasn’t a sure thing that the final season would even happen. The Brits seem to know when to let things go, and by November 2017, long before I had ever heard of it, Detectorists had come and gone. When it was recommended to me earlier this year, I was intrigued by the presence of Mackenzie Crook, the actor who played the sad gasbag Gareth on The Office, another piece of comedy perfection that never saw a twentieth episode. Crook wrote and directed all of Detectorists, and stars as an aspiring archaeologist named Andy Stone. Stone is no Gareth—he’s humble and sad and enduring, his gaunt features put to abiding, weary use—and behind the camera Crook demonstrates a brimming humanity that is hard to call anything but artistic brilliance.
The entire series runs for less than 10 hours, and I promise you that if it connects, you’ll complete it in roughly that amount of time. The strange word in the title, detectorists, made me think of crime and mysteries, but in fact it’s a reference to metal detector hobbyists. That describes the two main characters, Stone and his older friend Lance Stater (the superlative Toby Jones), and the genius of the show is inextricable from the performances of these leads. They are birds of a feather, slightly melancholic, slightly disappointed by life, but delighting in minutiae and especially the minutiae of history. Their resilience isn’t based on the belief that anything good will happen to them in the present—Lance operates a forklift moving produce while Andy does agency work and makes halting attempts to get his degree—but rather, good comes in the bounty of history. It’s a belief in magic. As Lance puts it, metal detecting “is as close as you’ll get to time travel.” The past is where they choose to live, at least in fantasy, all while the present encroaches in ways they’re ill-equipped to handle.
In terms of narrative drama, there’s not much here beyond the slow, pastoral search for Roman gold, and the grinding difficulties of ordinary relationships outside the field, but, average as that may sound, there’s no looking away. To praise Detectorists is to praise its unordinary rhythms, how it lulls and carries you, invests you even as it offers something close to an otherworldly tranquility. It’s undoubtedly a funny show (and sometimes, as in this cold open that I’ve watched roughly 100 times, wonderfully absurd), but the scenes I remember most are the ones that made me cry … of which there were an embarrassing amount. To give yourself to Crook’s experiment, to really sink in, is to love its characters, and he does a masterful job of exploiting that love in the rare “big” moments. You’ll know them when you see them, because like a harried medieval priest being chased by mounted invaders, he buries his clues early and lets them marinate, to be unearthed in moments of bursting poignancy. For instance: A gold dance is teased throughout, and the scene when it’s finally deployed, which I wish I could spoil just to talk about it some more, is a stunner.
There is also no separating the story from the setting. The beautiful farmland of north Essex is the third main character, jealous of its treasure, but unbearably peaceful on the surface. And I can’t think of any show, ever, that has used exactly one song to such effect. The theme is the heartbeat of the drama, and though it appears often, the refrain never loses its impact, or its way of heightening the emotional register of what came before.
But I haven’t really described why this show is so moving, or what makes it extraordinary. Here’s my best effort: Like Wes Anderson, Crook understands intuitively that sadness and comedy are two sides of the same gold coin, and he has the rare skill of making that coin turn in quick succession. A close cousin of this melancholic humor is the emotion we call nostalgia, which is often over-simplified as a wistful feeling for one’s own past, but I think is more accurately as a sense of longing for a feeling—perhaps embodied by a time and place, perhaps not—that we associate with a simple past. At the risk of sounding pretentious, Marcel Proust may have been the first artist to capture this emotion to such lovely, heartrending effect, and there haven’t been many people through the years that have managed to walk the same road. Crook is one of the few. He created a comedy that has tangible characters, a tangible story, and tangible consequences, but somehow the final product feels ineffable. I have only seen the farms of England from a passing bus, I am not a detectorist, and the lives depicted are not especially relatable. So why do I feel such devastating kinship with Lance and Andy? It’s because I long for the same nameless fulfillment, and Crook has put image and sound, if not words, to this longing.
We’re losing the thread of this emotion on a daily basis. Age makes it inevitable, but our current realities don’t help, and our art reflects the complications and cynicism of the deteriorating world. Some of that art is very good. But to have those trappings stripped away, to be ushered into a minimalistic, humanistic world in order to connect again with that aching nostalgia, is a gift. Detectorists comes bearing that gift, and if you’re feeling a bit empty these days, I suggest you partake.
Detectorists is currently available on Acorn TV, which is a standalone app or Amazon Prime add-on well worth it for British binge watching (plus, there’s a free trial).
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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