On ‘Detroiters,’ Two Bumbling Businessmen Aim to Restore the Motor City to Its Former Glory, One Local TV Ad at a Time

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There’s something inherently nostalgic — even innocent — about a show that celebrates the local TV ads that are slowly being priced out of existence thanks to technological shifts in the industry. The central duo of Detroiters, which premieres on Comedy Central on Tuesday, are itching to restore the Motor City to its former glory as a center of American commerce and culture, one cheesy local ad at a time.

Tim Cramblin (Tim Robinson) and Sam Duvet (Sam Richardson) run a small-potatoes advertising firm in Detroit; Tim’s father was once a hot-shot ad man himself, until he went mad and had to be institutionalized. Cramblin Duvet’s offices — really, Tim’s father’s old space — are decorated in midcentury Mad Men style, all heavy wood furniture and drop ceilings embedded with fluorescent lights. The difference is, the phones aren’t exactly ringing off the hook, the cavernous offices are practically empty, and their sexy secretary, Sheila (the very funny Pat Vern Harris) is a septuagenarian. She likes to think she’s a Joan Holloway, but she’s more of an Ida Blankenship.

Tim and Sam’s Detroit isn’t the romantically hollowed-out Motor City we’ve come to recognize in recent years from disaster-porn slideshows, but rather a ho-hum suburban cityscape full of strip malls. (Although Sam did buy a house for twenty grand that he’s trying to flip.) There are plenty of nods to the show’s title city, including frequent appearances by real-life Detroit newscaster Mort Crim, the inspiration behind Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy.

Cramblin Duvet’s typical client is Eddie Champagne (Steve Higgins), “the hot tub king of Detroit.” But Tim and Sam have a bigger fish in mind: Carter Grant (Jason Sudeikis), the VP of marketing for Chrysler. In the pilot episode, Tim and Sam track down Carter at a fancy Detroit steakhouse where he’s meeting with a powerful Chicago ad firm to try to convince him to go local.

Richardson and Robinson co-created Detroiters with former Saturday Night Live writers Zach Kanin and Joe Kelly (Jason Sudeikis and Lorne Michaels are executive producers), and the pair have wonderful chemistry as best friends — unsurprisingly, since they were already besties before appearing in Chicago’s Second City troupe in the early 2010s. Since then, both have gone on to enjoy mainstream success, Richardson as the bumbling congressional aide Richard Splett on Veep, and Robinson as a (former) staff writer and featured player on SNL.

In Detroiters, their dynamic recalls the near-codependent relationship between Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) on Broad City, another Comedy Central show that shares a lot of DNA with Detroiters. The latter substitutes Detroit for New York City, but both series center on best friends scouring their respective cities for opportunity. Like Broad City, Detroiters is set in a heightened reality, with a lightly surreal quality to it and a supporting cast full of oddballs. Tim and Sam share Abbi and Ilana’s manic energy and enthusiasm for ill-advised ideas; tasked with coming up with a plan to present to Chrysler in the morning, the pair guzzles speed pills from an old bottle they find in a desk drawer and spend the night wildly brainstorming ideas.

The premise of Detroiters gives it ample room to stretch out over many potential seasons; I can imagine a near-infinite number of small businesses in need of cheap-and-cheerful TV ads. And yes, we also get to see some of these terrifically deranged spots, a shot of nostalgia for millennial viewers who grew up watching local ads before DVR and streaming swept in and changed the way we consume ads — and the kinds of ads we see. In the past year or so, there have been indications that TV networks are trying to woo back viewers who have grown accustomed to watching TV uninterrupted by ads; several networks have pledged to cut back ad time and make up for the lost revenue by charging more for the now-limited spots.

It’s too early to bemoan the death of the local ad as a result of these nascent changes, but it’s not hard to imagine a future in which your local car dealership or hot-tub salesman just can’t afford a spot that, say, Walmart would have no trouble buying. Detroiters is in part a loving homage to these unintentional comedic gems. We’ve all got our favorites.

The focus on cheesy local TV production also puts Detroiters in line with Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s series that trafficked in the cheap graphics and off-brand talent of local cable access shows — like a nightmare, bizarro-world version of Wayne’s Word. Detroiters shares Tim and Eric’s penchant — and fondness — for the absurd, but the Comedy Central show presents a diluted brand of surrealism that’s far more accessible than Adult Swim’s Awesome Show.

Through a combination of good-natured goofiness, hyper-repetition, and a wide array of genuinely funny performances — as hot-tub king Eddie Champagne, Steve Higgins steals the end of the pilot — Detroiters endears itself to the viewer quickly and steadfastly. The show exudes affection for the title city not by inflating its worth or fetishizing its decrepitude, but by demonstrating the love that its misguided heroes have for their hometown. Tim and Sam’s venture may be a work in progress, but it’s never just business.

Detroiters premieres Tuesday, February 7 at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.