The traditional “family comedy” tends to come with a pretty set formula: Take one husband with idea after hair-brained idea to get rich/re-live his youth/fill in the blank, add one disapproving wife to consistently step in and ruin the fun, mix in 2.5 coming-of-age kids who cause just enough trouble to learn a valuable lesson but not enough to commit any serious felonies, and you’ve got 22 minutes of standard entertainment.
Enter “The Detour,” the mildly NSFW TBS original comedy helmed by real life husband/wife duo Jason Jones and Samantha Bee, that popped onto the scene last year and quietly turned this concept on its ear. In the show’s pointedly hilarious first season, we were given the Parker family — Nate (Jason Jones), Robin (Natalie Zea), Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich), and Jared (Liam Carroll) — who venture out on a doomed-from-the-start road trip from Syracuse, NY down to Florida.
Hijinks obviously ensue along the way. But for the Parkers, those hijinks include Nate being covered in a trucker’s urine, Delilah getting her period while in a strip club, Robin eating enough weed candies to take down Snoop Dogg, frank discussions about everything from abortion to the meaning of racism, and the revelation that Nate and Robin aren’t (gasp!) actually married.
But perhaps the best (ahem) detour from the staid FamCom mold is Natalie Zea’s Robin. Far from the de-facto naysayer, Robin is many things — mother, partner, believer in telling the truth, and someone with the best intentions. But most prominent among these qualifiers? She’s a big ol’ mess, just like the rest of her family. The biggest gift the show has given Robin is allowing her to figure life out along the way, same as everyone else — she makes mistakes, cracks jokes, and more often than not, gets to be the one who loses her cool.
“Wait, so mom is the loser?” Jared asks, after it’s revealed (at an obviously inconvenient time) that Robin has an undisclosed DUI. “Yeah, kinda.” Everyone agrees.
That’s right, Jared. Even moms can be losers.
On the heels of the third episode of Season 2, we had a chance to talk to Natalie Zea–who’s garnering some early awards buzz for her portrayal of Robin–about what she loves about her character, her move into comedy, and what exactly she can tell us about Robin’s mysterious backstory.
Screener: Robin is not your typical “TV Mom.” She’s … kind of a mess, like the rest of her family. Is that something that drew you to this project?
Natalie Zea: Yeah, I think it’s strange that we don’t see that a lot, still. I think that was the primary thing that attracted me to the role. That, and just the humor of the entire script. But the idea of me being offered this type of role was not something I ever thought I’d get to do, certainly not right out of the gate; I had very little, in terms of comedy and leading roles, under my belt — so I didn’t think something this rich would come along as quickly as it did, in my pursuit of being a serious comedian.
You’ve built a pretty solid career in drama before this. Were you looking to do something different? What made you want to get involved in a half-hour comedy?
I had been looking for this for a while. I’ve wanted to do comedy for while. I ended up taking a couple of other jobs because the projects just weren’t coming, and the ones that were coming just were not as entertaining or important, or as smart, as something like this.
Do you think of yourself as a dramatic or comedic actress, or is there a distinction these days?
You know, I think when people go to theatre school, they go to theatre school. They don’t go to comedy school or drama school. I’m not sure where we all got tripped up on, “I’m a comedy actress, I’m a drama actress.” I think if you’re trained to do it, you should be trained to do both.
After last season’s epic cliff hanger, we’re starting to see some of Robin’s past creep into her new life in New York City. What can you tell us about what to expect from her this season?
Robin is primarily afraid of her past coming back to haunt her, and a lot of her past is in NYC, so she’s hesitant to be there. And it does [start to come back]. I wish I could say more! It happens very early on, however. So there’s pay off! There are a couple of flashback episodes that focus on two different parts of her life that are key. So, you get to see a lot of it play out as it happens.
We’re still in limbo about whether she was helping people or not. Can you shed a little light on that?
Not without spoiling anything. I will say that it’s, accidentally, very politically timely, some of the things that she was doing; they sort of resonate with what’s happening now, which was not a plan of ours.
There is a lot of subtle commentary on a couple of hot-button issues playing out right now – racism, gun control, etc. Was that intentional?
Some of it is accident, and some of it isn’t. Our producers [Samantha Bee, Jason Jones] have been very much at the forefront of political satire, so it’s impossible to get away from it. But Jason has been very good at making sure it’s not overt, and that it’s certainly not taking any sides. He understands we’re politically divided right now, as a country. So we’re very equal opportunity, we make fun of all sides, which is important.
So, you’re now into your second season of a half-hour comedy. It sounds like you’re feeling good about the move?
You know it doesn’t really feel that different [from a drama series]. Even 10 years ago, if you were on a sitcom versus being on a drama, those were different lifestyles and you were perceived very differently. But now, because of the peak TV boom, TV is TV. If it’s quality, it doesn’t matter if there’s poop and pee, it doesn’t matter if it’s 22 minutes or 42 minutes, it’s about what people respond to. I mean the hours are brutal — comedies used to be the easiest jobs, you show up at noon and leave at 3… I kind of miss the golden age of comedies, where you roll up to work in your pajamas!
Your co-star Jason Jones is also a co-creator of the show with his wife, Samantha Bee. Is there any of their dynamic mixed into the characters of Robin and Nate?
Yeah, I think Samantha and I are very similar. And this not because of what I know of her, but because often after Jason and I shoot a scene, once it’s over he’ll make a comment like, “Oof, that was too real. That was a lot like my wife.” It’s like everyone’s wife!
“The Detour” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on TBS.