Series Review: Return to “detectorists”

I stumbled into “detectorists” when it hit Netflix some years back. But the streaming service had just the first two seasons of it, and while I binged it and absolutely adored it, I never got around to writing about it.

Coming back to the series after a third season of it brought things to a nice conclusion just renews its charms and makes the case for the best British “limited comedy series” since “Fawlty Towers,” or “Black Adder.” The best series are the ones whose creators know when they’ve done enough, with just enough episodes polished to as near perfection as they can make them to make them sit on the memory forever and ever.

Mackenzie Crook was probably best-known in America for being — along with short, balding Lee Arenberg — the scrawny half of Pintel and Ragetti, memorable recurring scurvy dogs in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.

But the veteran British comic actor and sometime writer really made his mark when he conjured up a quintessentially English comedy about the oddballs who put on headphones, sweep the ground and “hunt for treasure” or at least antiquities in the fields, hills and forests of Blighty.

It’s a forlorn farce of quiet reserve and delicious melancholy, a satire of a nation of “hobbyists” and a twee spoof of not-quite-toxic male bonding at its most elemental. There’s romance and reward, rivalry and secrecy, but most of all loneliness in these 19 episodes about the lives and metal-detecting passions of our two heroes, Andy (Crook) and Lance.

Crook created the series as a star vehicle for himself, and wrote most of the episodes. But as good as he is in it, and as droll as the writing always is, his master strokes are in casting, an entire “Island of Misfit Toys” of English eccentrics, beginning with Andy’s foil, Lance. If there is a British character actor who less embodies anyone you ever knew with the dashing moniker “Lance,” it is Toby Jones.

Jones has played Marvel villains and MI6 functionaries (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), professors, diplomats and Truman Capote. “Loneliness” comes through in much of his work, with hints of wit and resentment that the tall guy with more hair always “gets the girl.”

That’s Lance in “detectorists,” a quiet working-class fussbudget who drives a forklift by day, immerses himself in all sorts of nerd arcana, motors a 1978 Triumph TR-7 constantly in need of a tune-up, reads and watches quiz shows by night and gears-up for metal detecting with Andy on weekends.

They chat about history, who did what on which quiz show, and women. Andy lives with smart, sarcastic school teacher Becky (Rachael Stirling) and is finishing up archaeology studies, but is every bit as hapless as Lance when it comes to the fairer sex.

Lance is divorced from the flighty Maggie (Lucy Benjamin, daft and deliciously hateful here), who lives with the man she left him for and still uses Lance without a hint of pity.

But Lance, a bit of a poet and a stumbling mandolinist, is the one who sums up their quirky “hobby,” which they refuse to let anyone call “treasure hunting.”

“It’s the closest you’ll ever get to time travel.”

Through the series, with its romantic ups and downs and many near-misses and triumphs, we meet “detectorists” even more eccentric than Lance and Andy. There’s the president of their Danebury Metal Detecting Club,Terry (Gerald Horan, a delight) and the screwy, literate, might-have-buried-his-wife-in-the-paddock farmer Bishop (David Stern) whose land they’re sure has a Saxon king’s burial ship somewhere on it.

Then there are the rivals, the mirror-image pretentious nerds (Simon Farnaby, Paul Casar) they label “Simon & Garfunkel” for obvious reasons — riddling every conversation with “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Mrs. Robinson” and “Scarborough Fair” cracks — which neither academic twit gets.

Series creator Crook –a walking, bug-eyed, hangdog sightgag — layers in metal detecting jargon, makes fun of the junk that’s mostly what they turn up (“buttons” through history is a running gag) and teases us with what they’re just missing — the “Saxon hoard” of coins and jewels just beyond their detectors’ range, the outline of the Saxon ship still visible in the grass growth, a Viking-era jeweled piece that would be any British detectorist’s Holy Grail.

“The Holy Grail is the Holy Grail of treasure hunting.”

“If you’re going to be pedantic the Ark of the Covenant is the Holy Grail.”

The “heroes” are badly-flawed, socially-awkward blokes who tamp down their one-upsmanship when they’re together, are secretive and duplicitous with rivals and the women in their lives, but never to each other. And underscoring every episode is a Celtic folk lament by singer songwriter Johnny Flynn, “I’llllll be yer TREA-aaaa-sure.”

There are moments in this understated show that approach the sublime. mournful and sad, wistful funny and, by default “twee.”

It’s quirky series with dry jokes, simple running gags, simple sight gags and a sense of English creature comforts and sentimental modesty about it. The resigned suggestion after finding a “hammered” (hand-minted English coins of yore) — “The pub?” A simple, comfy reply — “Go on, then.”

If you’re treasure hunting for a show that’s short, bittersweet, droll and ironic, that knows when to make a bow and exit, you could do a lot worse than “detectorists.”

MPA Rating: TV-14, profanity

Cast: Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook, Rachael Stirling, Gerald Horan, Simon Farnaby, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Paul Casar, Lucy Benjamin, David Stern and Diana Rigg.

Credits: Created by Mackenzie Crook. A BBC4 production on Roku, Apple+, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 19 episodes @30 minutes each


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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