Review: ‘DETECTORISTS’ Is A Hidden Gem

Don’t miss out on Mackenzie Crook’s lovely BAFTA-winning series, which recently made its final season available on our shores.

We unearth the scattered memories. Mine for stories. Fill in the personality … We’re time travellers.

–Lance

In the decade-plus since the original BBC The Office, many of its figures have gone on to bigger things. Ricky Gervais made a cottage industry out of being insufferable on awards shows and on Twitter, in between creating programs (Extras, Derek) that never caught fire. Writer/producer Stephen Merchant became an actor himself, creating Hello Ladies after a few years of appearing on The Ricky Gervais Show and (hysterical) spin-off An Idiot Abroad. Martin Freeman, of course, is practically an A-lister now, and that’s well-deserved.

But none of them can claim credit for the blissful nine hours I spent with all three seasons of Detectorists: no, that’s the erstwhile “Gareth,” Mackenzie Crook, who wrote, directed, and co-starred in every charming episode, even walking away from a lucrative gig in the Pirates franchise to complete it. In many ways, it’s more satisfying than even The Office, trading cringe comedy for an easygoing warmth, as relaxing as an afternoon in the English countryside, brilliantly written and humanely performed by Crook, Toby Jones, Rachael Stirling, and a cast of lovable oddballs. The first two seasons are currently on Netflix, with the third on streaming service Acorn TV (which offers a free one-week trial) as of January 15th.

Crook and Jones play Andy and Lance, respectively, longtime friends and hobbyists (just don’t call them “metal detectors”) who while away their weekends on the fields of Essex, as much searching for lost Saxon gold as for something to give their lives meaning. Andy has a degree in archaeology, but can’t seem to land a better job than sweeping floors or spraying weeds, to the chagrin of whip-smart girlfriend Becky (Stirling). Lance is a forklift driver, who at the series’s beginning is still pining for his scatterbrained ex-wife (Lucy Benjamin), who never took him or his hobby seriously. Along with the other members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, they jockey for detecting permits in untapped areas, sure that they’re one stroke of luck away from discovering a Roman burial or medieval jewel.

Most episodes start the same way: a bit of small talk, occasionally about someone they know who died, or swapping bits of random historical trivia; someone’s detector will beep, revealing nothing more than a can pull-tab or a toy car; then the plaintive folk theme by Johnny Flynn plays over shots of magpies, dew, and rolling hills. There’s comfort in this rhythm, the same kind Andy & Lance find in theirs. Yet within this ordinariness lies great heart, as these two men are much more than the sum of their eccentricities. Crook writes and directs with a thoughtful eye for both character and composition, finding beauty in the mundane and wry meaning in even the smallest interaction.

“Nostalgia conventions aren’t what they used to be” deadpans Andy, in a moment representative of Detectorists‘ playful humor. A pair of rival detectorists (played by Paul Casar and the bristle-haired Simon Farnaby) are always accompanied on the soundtrack, fittingly, by a strain of Simon & Garfunkel; they’re the closest the show has to villains, but are more pitiful than malicious. David Sterne is a riot as Farmer Bishop, whose land may hold a buried Saxon ship, though he may not have a mental grasp on its significance. (Seriously, he’s the absolute best.)

And of course, it is an exceedingly British show. If you’re not interested in jokes about tea, fleeces, or the “venerable” 8th Century historian Bede, you might think Detectorists isn’t quite your cuppa. But its portrait of a quiet rural community translates across oceans, as universal as the foibles of its characters. Crook smartly resists even the faintest hint of melodrama, allowing Lance and Andy to fall into their own problems — mostly due to conflict avoidance — then dig themselves back out again. There’s also a subtle shift in Lance’s character over the first season, as he is originally written as an obnoxious third wheel, but Jones’s heartfelt sincerity ultimately wins out.

By the fist-pumping final scene of Season 2, which directly hinges on a striking, shallow-focus closeup of Jones’s studied face, you get the impression Crook is happy to take a half-step back and let Jones carry the show. Crook’s confidence as a director only grows in the final season, especially in an evocative historical flashback set to the Unthanks’ “Magpie,” and in the series’ perfectly-judged final moments. I even welled up at a few silent reaction shots, across different scenes, from minor characters.

Detectorists is also written with impressive economy. Often, Andy or Lance will talk to the other about something they need to do, or a conversation they need to have, and then later — the next episode, or even the next scene — they’ve already done it, and we’re addressing what happens next. That leaves room for the supporting cast, especially the excellent Stirling and her (real-life!) mother Diana Rigg, to work their own subtle magic, but it primarily serves as a kind of weaponized predictability: it may not be difficult to guess where each season is headed (indeed, Crook revels in his shots of artifacts yet to be unearthed), but its efficiency in getting there keeps the focus on character development, not plot. Its strongest emotions come in the B-and C-stories, as lives go on and characters evolve with the ongoing treasure hunting providing a peaceful background hum.

Detectorists is a rare show that is almost all nuance, in its celebration of mature friendship and tranquility, and of detecting itself as a means for not just preserving ancient history, but becoming a part of the story. That’s something that made me jealous watching as an American — we don’t all have a thousand years of civilization waiting beneath our feet. But while watching, you’re nevertheless transported away from the noise and chaos of the real world, until it’s just you, and the land, and the silence yet to be broken by the next discovery. You owe it to yourself to discover Detectorists.


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