It must feel like a challenge to find something new in the road trip family comedy. The sub-genre has plenty of undiscovered country to explore, but most viewers’ minds will naturally be drawn to National Lampoon’s Vacation, Little Miss Sunshine, and lesser entries when you hear the pitch for TBS’ The Detour, a show about a charming family that finds calamity on the road. The key is to create so many small differences that they start to look like big ones. And that’s what The Detour accomplishes early and often in the six episodes that were released to critics.
The Detour introduces us to Nate Parker Jr. (Jason Jones, who co-created the show), his wife Robin (Natalie Zea, best known for Justified), and their two children, Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich) and Jared (Liam Carroll) as they venture out in a minivan they call Blue Thunder. The plan is to fly to Fort Lauderdale for a beach vacation/work trip for Nate, but as the title suggests, there is a detour and Nate decides to drive his family from New York State to Florida. To get into the reasons why would spoil an interesting B story that runs through the entire season and fuels Nate’s occasional anxiety, but I will say that Nate is hiding something from his family.
The chemistry between Nate and Robin is off the charts. His need to please her and keep her calm is palpable as is her attraction to him and the subtle glances of annoyance that any long-together couple can relate to. It’s a three-dimensional couple with a well-developed patter, a still-active sex drive, and feelings for their kids that veer between affection and annoyance.
The kids are also a rarity. They’re fully formed characters who always seem to be in on the action, even if some of the jokes are designed to fly over their heads. In fact, a lot of the humor in the first two episodes revolves around the kids — from an unfortunate trip to a strip club and a memorable first for the daughter to a talk about the birds and the bees in a gas station — but the laughs come more from Nate and Robin’s reactions (and attempts to right the ship) than they do from any kind of precocious kid-blather. Delilah and Jared seem as authentic as Nate and Robin, which helps as the family continues to stumble into larger and more outlandish scenarios on their way to Florida — a set of hilarious circumstances that gives the show a kind of mythical odyssey feel as they encounter bizarre strangers and settings, from a confrontation and other trouble at a Medieval Times knock-off to a glorious-seeming bed and breakfast that turns into an awkward weekend. The show’s ability to extract laughs from simple misunderstandings is a marvel, even when the logic behind those situations is absurd.