Monday, February 13, 2017

'Detroiters:' A Silly, Drive-By Celebration of the Comeback City

Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson play airhead ad men in 'Detroiters.'
Though I wasn't born there, I spent nearly half my life, more than 30 years, in Detroit. I lived most of that time inside the city proper (always on the East Side) but also claimed addresses in Pontiac, Southfield, Warren and Ferndale.

And in the minds of many locals, that combination of facts – (1) wasn't born there, (2) didn't live there continuously, and (3) don't live there now – are more than enough to disqualify me as an "official" Detroiter.

In the Motor Town, pride and provincialism run as thick as Sanders' hot fudge over Stroh's ice cream. If you're gonna "do Detroit," you better come correct. So you can imagine the southeast Michigan trepidation and jubilation upon the arrival of Detroiters, the new half-hour sitcom Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. EST on Comedy Central.

It's not unlike having your kid perform the solo in the school recital: we're so excited for the opportunity, but please don't screw up and embarrass us.

And for the most part Detroiters does Detroit proud, although it definitely could have made a better first impression comedically. It goes beyond the standard national video clich├ęs of the city – blighted buildings, the Spirit of Detroit statue, ruin porn, Joe Louis' fist – to layer in some references sure to make locals smile.

When the two principal players, a pair of hapless advertising guys struggling to keep their tiny agency afloat, need a snack break after an all-night brainstorming session, they grab for a bag of Better Made potato chips. When they want to check out their new commercial as it airs, they slip into the Temple Bar and – ohmigosh! – isn't that legendary former Detroit anchor Mort Crim on the TV, intoning the local news?

This attention to Detroit detail should come as no surprise, since the show's thirtysomething stars and creators, Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson (Veep), are Motor Citizens to their core, fulfilling a long-held dream to mount a comedy shot in and about their homeland.

Robinson grew up around Clarkston, while Richardson spent his childhood in the city's famed Boston-Edison neighborhood. They met as members of the now-defunct Detroit edition of the Second City comedy troupe and formed a tight friendship – so much so that they texted each other almost daily even though they continued their careers on opposite coasts. Robinson resettled in New York and parlayed that Second City connection into a cast position, and eventually a staff writing gig, on Saturday Night Live.

He must have left on excellent terms: Detroiters is executive produced by legendary SNL founder Lorne Michaels and former ensemble member Jason Sudeikis, who appeared in the pilot episode as the Big Kahuna vice president of marketing for Chrysler. His character becomes the impossible dream for Tim Cramblin (Robinson), owner of a small-time family ad agency with his partner (and brother-in-law) Sam Duvet (Richardson): though they don't have a swimmer's chance in the Detroit River of landing a major national auto account, that doesn't deter them from going to extraordinary measures to make their pitch.

In part, Detroiters is a celebration of those classic, incredibly hokey local-TV commercials that every market cherishes – in Detroit's case, featuring outrageous pitchmen like Ollie Fretter, Richard Golden, Mel Farr "Superstar" and, of course, the immortal Maurice Lezell, "Mr. Belvedere." In part, it is silly and disjointed, and at some point during the pilot you'll find yourself wishing it was funnier. The New York Times described the show as "Dumb and Dumber meets Mad Men," which is fairly accurate, but not quite as goofy as the former and nowhere near as sophisticated as the latter.

What makes Detroiters special is that of all the series set in or based on Detroit – from Home Improvement and Martin to Detroit 1-8-7, Low Winter Sun and Hung – it undeniably comes closest to getting Detroit right. YES, black men and white men can get along, be besties and even be related to each other! YES, we have fine downtown dining establishments that don't serve coney dogs! NO, not every residential area in the city looks like a bombed-out, postwar London!

You can't throw a bottle of Vernors anywhere in the country without hitting a Detroiter upside the head. We're everywhere! However, whether enough of them care about reveling in their hometown's mystique – and convincing hundreds of thousands of their non-Detroit friends to do the same – will be this sitcom's ultimate key to success. Wish I could help lead the charge, but as you know, I'm not an "official" Detroiter.

On the Big Glowing Box Remote (out of 10): 7.0 clicks (anticipating rapid improvement)