AMSTERDAM: Mackenzie Crook’s slow-burner comedy is centered around the Danebury Metal Detecting Club — a group of oddballs whose hobby/obsession is metal detecting (basically, spending their days in fields with a machine that lets them know if there is something metallic under the ground it is ‘sweeping’; if it beeps, the user then digs down to see what’s there — hoping for buried treasure, but usually discovering something far more prosaic, like a button).
It’s not easy to explain the appeal of “Detectorists”: There are no big comedy set-pieces or pratfalls, just hours of meticulously observed, beautifully crafted, low-key humor and sweetly touching moments, often set in unspectacular but wonderful countryside scenery. It’s not a bombastic, joke-per-minute sit com, it’s a subtle, understated examination of relationships of all kinds (albeit an extremely funny one).
Much of the show’s considerable soul comes from the relationship between Andy (played by Crook) — a worker at a temp agency, struggling to make ends meet while pursuing his true passion of archaeology — and his best friend and fellow detectorist Lance. It’s a vivid portrayal of the gentler side of male bonding in which emotions may not often be openly stated, but nor are they buried.
“Gentle” is an apt word for the show as a whole. Its humor is generous, rather than cruel. In the hands of another writer, the detectorists may have come across as loser misfits with sad lives. But Crook’s affection for eccentricity of all kinds shines through, and the obvious joy the little group takes in each others’ company is clear. They are like a (slightly dysfunctional) family — with the delightful Sheila (Sophie Thompson) as the group mother. She’s not a detectorist herself, but her husband Terry is the club president, and Sheila is happy to indulge and support him. Just as Terry will go dancing with Sheila, because he knows it’s important to her.
Andy’s girlfriend (and later wife) Becky, a primary school teacher, is less enamored with the whole metal-detecting thing, feeling that it leaves him with little spare time and even less spare money. The story of this relationship, too, is wonderfully told, with Crook again eschewing melodramatic sit-com tropes in favor of realism.
Crook also deserves credit for knowing when to stop (just as Ricky Gervais did with “The Office,” in which Crook got his big break). The series’ three-season run is brilliantly judged — with one of those rare endings that seems entirely right for the show.