“Men have hobbies and women don’t understand them,” declares Lance. “It’s the way it’s always been. I mean, how many female trainspotters are there? How many women commit to spending an afternoon reorganizing their vinyl in alphabetical order? You don’t want to spend an evening with a beautiful woman just comparing comic book collections, do you?”
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Detectorists, a comedy that aired on BBC Four from 2014 to 2017, but like a man wanding the beach with a metal detector on a Saturday afternoon, I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much. And look what I found — a little treasure, a pitch-perfect season of British comedy at its best.
It starts out as a standard-issue quirky TV comedy, featuring two best friends named Lance and Andy who spend their free time digging for bits of metal, talking about what they found (or don't find), and attending meetings of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club (membership: seven).
Soon, however, it becomes clear that Mackenzie Crook (The Office), who created Detectorists and plays Andy, is interested in digging deeper into what the human heart really treasures.
To do this, he’s given Lance and Andy the gift of self-awareness. Unlike other diehard detectorists in their north Essex town (as opposed to detectors, which are the weed-whacker-like devices used by detectorists), Andy and Lance know their obsession borders on the ridiculous, but it's where they've placed their ambitions.
“We pretend we’re happy finding buckles and buttons and crap,” Lance explains to Sophie, a student at the local university. “But what we’re hoping for is gold. Find one piece of gold, something that’s been held by a Saxon or a Roman, one of the other ancient peoples that once roamed this land before us.”
In Season 1, the action — or what passes for action on Detectorists — centers on just such a pursuit, as Lance and Andy go searching for a centuries-old ship said to be buried somewhere in the former bottomlands of north Essex. One thing I really admire about Detectorists is how its writers seem confident enough in the show's character development to thrust everyone into a real live story, one that takes the remainder of the season’s six episodes to tell.
Besides Andy and Lance — played by the versatile British character actor Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)— there’s Andy’s longtime girlfriend Becky (Rachael Stirling), a schoolteacher whose good-natured tolerance of his hobby and words of wisdom help give Detectorists the mature, non-patronizing tone most comedies lack.
Her patience is tested by the presence of the grad student Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), who somewhat implausibly also takes a shine to Andy. The two women’s rivalry is good for a few tart exchanges but not much more.
Likewise, Lance’s relationship with his ex-wife Maggie (Lucy Benjamin), who is now dating a Pizza Hut manager (Adam Riches), feels like a time-filler. These scenes don’t round out Lance’s character much, except to suggest that his long list of diversions — besides detectoring he plays mandolin, follows TV quiz shows, and drives a beautifully restored Triumph TR7 — reflect his desire to pour his passions into those interests, rather than a pointless marriage.
Of course, Andy and Lance do spend an awful lot of time together, and their chitchat produces most of Detectorists’ funniest laugh lines. Like the time Lance cooks up lunch for Andy with vegetables he’s purloined from his job at a produce company.
“I call this ‘Swede Surprise,’” says Lance.
“What’s the surprise?” Andy asks.
“How bland it is,” says Lance, with great satisfaction.
This ongoing bromance irritates Becky to no end, as when Andy reveals that he and Lance have spent Saturday evening in the pub just down the road, discussing their detecting adventures of the day, with no thought of inviting her along. It’s this damned hobby — and not some young thing from university — that is the true rival for her affections, and Becky knows it.
If Detectorists were a true Britcom, she would simply spend the next 18 episodes making Brokeback Mountain jokes. (There were just three six-episode series made, plus a Christmas special.) Instead, the show pushes Becky’s and Andy’s relationship to the brink, forcing them to make confessions and decisions that are, for a comedy of this type, surprisingly heartfelt.
The pursuit of ancient treasure eventually involves everyone on the show, including several oddballs I haven’t mentioned, like the hermit who lets Andy and Lance search for metal on his property and is constantly calling out to his nonexistent dogs; and archrivals from another detectoring club (also poorly attended) who, as Lance likes to point out loudly and hilariously, bear an uncanny resemblance to Simon and Garfunkel.
Don’t get me wrong — for such a gently-paced show, Detectorists is packed with punchlines (which are funnier if you watch them on Hulu instead of the cleaned-up versions that air on some PBS stations). But it’s got more going for it than that. By the time the delightfully satisfying conclusion plays out at the end of the sixth episode you will be eager to follow these characters’ journeys a little further to see what other treasures about the human condition they'll uncover.
Thanks to reader Diane Capps for suggesting Detectorists. If you’d like to nominate a show for review in The Overlooked, drop me a line.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.