January 15, 2018
Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook
Early last year, English actor Mackenzie Crook found gold on the farm where he filmed the second season of Detectorists, the BBC comedy that he wrote, directed, and costarred in with Toby Jones. Subsequent research by the British Museum revealed what he’d detected: a penny-sized pendant or earring, dropped, perhaps, by a careless Roman nearly 2,000 years ago. When Jones’s Detectorists character, Lance, unearths gold in the show’s second-season finale, he does the metal-detecting community’s traditional gold dance. Crook wrote that reaction to Lance’s fictional find, but he didn’t dance in real life. “It literally was the last signal of the day,” Crook tells me by phone, referring to the bleep and bloop from his metal detector. “It was getting dark, and I didn’t realize what I had until I got it back home. I didn’t want to dance in my kitchen on my own late at night.”
As much as any other pastime, metal detecting seems made for metaphor. When Crook’s headphones-clad characters spend their days sweeping fields with their wands, listening for a signal, he says, they’re “actually searching for love and for where they belong and all these other things in their life.” If the 46-year-old Crook can see the symbolism in his characters’ ceaseless search, then maybe we can spot a parallel in his own unwitting gold discovery at the end of a day. By the time Crook started writing Detectorists in 2013, the longtime caricature actor was running out of time to play a regular guy. And until he developed the idea, he didn’t know how precious the project would turn out to be.
Even after 19 half-hour episodes, Detectorists is difficult to describe. That becomes clear when I ask Crook for his synopsis of the series, whose third and final season finished airing in the U.K. last month and premieres in the U.S. today on Acorn TV, a streaming service that produces and ports international programming from Great Britain and other English-speaking countries. (The first two seasons are also available via Netflix.) “I guess I’d say it’s a comedy about ordinary people and their hobbies,” Crook answers, confidently at first. “That’s initially what I set out to do.” He pauses. “But it’s actually turned out to be much more than that. And in hindsight, I can’t really claim that I set out to create this thing that explored so deeply these ordinary lives. Essentially it’s about two friends who just spend their time out in the fields metal detecting. I just totally proved your point there. I can’t really describe it.”
Crook, whose haunted eyes and gaunt frame American audiences will recognize from his roles as the wildling warg Orell on Game of Thrones and comic-relief Ragetti in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, hardly had to describe it to the BBC, with whom he’s worked for close to 20 years, beginning with his breakout role as officious, prank-prone assistant Gareth Keenan on the U.K. edition of The Office. (For U.S.-only Office viewers, Gareth begat Dwight.) Crook says that the BBC wasn’t bothered by the fact that “nothing much happens” in the typical Detectorists episode, which also had the virtue of cutting down costs. Bolstered by his preexisting relationship with the network, Crook’s pilot script sold the idea, despite his lack of experience on the other side of the camera. “They didn’t ever meddle with it, try to increase the joke count or speed it up or anything like that,” he says. “They sat back and let me do what I wanted and create what I had in my head.”
Detectorists won a BAFTA for Best Scripted Comedy in 2015, and it gets glowing reviews—albeit not enough of them for the show to appear on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. (The show does crack the all-time TV top 200 based on IMDb user ratings.) “It’s been so well-received, by not a huge amount of people, but those people that have found it have taken it to their hearts, and it’s had this quite emotional response,” Crook says. Like Parks and Recreation and an assortment of lower-profile sitcoms with small but devoted audiences—Party Down, Slings & Arrows, Mozart in the Jungle—Detectorists provokes such strong attachment in part because it concerns a subculture that’s so far from the worlds of doctors, lawyers, and law enforcement that take up a disproportionate amount of our TV time. There’s no high-concept sci-fi or fantasy here, no mystery box to unlock in essay-length theories on Reddit. Detectorists is ostensibly smaller in scope and ambition than the bigger-budget shows that shoulder it out of the spotlight, but few other sitcoms can compete with the pathos that comes from its loving look at a little-loved pursuit, and the people who find that pursuit fulfilling.
According to Crook, members of the detecting community were wary when they heard that the BBC would be basing a show on their hobby. “As soon as it was announced, before it had been shown, people just assumed that oh, it’s going to be portraying them as losers,” Crook says. “But as soon as the first episode went out, it was clear that that’s not what I intended to do.” Detectorists deftly finds the humor in its characters’ quirks without portraying them as pitiful. They’re outcasts, in some respects, but the script never strips them of their dignity. Crook found that balance after first straying too far in a more mocking direction. “When we started writing it, I had a different character dynamic,” Crook says. “They were a little bit more laughable, and Lance’s character, especially, was a bit of a dick and a bit more mercenary. … But as soon as Toby came on board, that character changed, and I realized that these guys are guys that I wanted to hang out with.”