Natalie Zea, who co-stars with Jason Jones on off-kilter sitcom The Detour, is changing the face of comedy TV, stealing scenes with her sometimes bawdy, sometimes sensitive portrayal of an imperfect but well-intentioned mom and wife on the edge. She also uses her physicality as humor, flipping the script on the typical “male gaze” by unapologetically owning her character's sexuality and embracing the show's ironic political incorrectness. Season 3 ended with the upended Parker family on the lam and a cliffhanger as their rebellious teen, Delilah, finally runs away. So what can audiences expect next from the show, recently renewed for a fourth season on TBS, and created by Jones and his wife, comedic powerhouse Samantha Bee?
“All I can say is this: I can't wait to simulate uncomfortable sex with Jason for another season!” jokes the L.A.-based Zea, who spoke with L.A. Weekly before and after the show’s renewal.
Zea’s quip points to a bigger underlying aspect of the series. Her character, Robin, is overtly sexual in ways that aren't often portrayed of a mom on TV, maybe in a way we haven't seen since Married … With Children, where Peggy (deftly played by Katey Sagal), often busting out of her cheetah-print top, was always after a bumbling Al (also played to a T by Ed O’Neill). For example, take the scene in Season 3 when Robin comes home drunk after dancing in a strip club with the noble goal of supporting her financially defunct family. She wants one thing from a bewildered Nate (Jones).
“That's actually my favorite episode! So two things. First, playing drunk is really hard to do because it's really easy to look like you're ‘playing’ drunk and it's really hard to actually look like you're drunk. So I was very nervous because when you don't do it well, and it's hard to do well, it just looks stupid. It just looks like you're ‘acting,’” says Zea. “Second, I know they had to do some pretty tricky editing because, in full disclosure, I was laughing at myself, and when you can hear people laughing behind a monitor, let's just say, it doesn't help. But that was only one of the few times where I felt I had to really push myself as an actress on the show.”
Zea’s physical humor is on point and the scene feels as realistic — while hilarious — as can be. Her performance in that scene, and in so many others, slapstick or subtle, is Emmy-worthy.
“Natalie works very hard, but she comes across as if it’s effortless for her,” Jones says of his co-star. “She makes me a better actor. You're not supposed to compliment looks anymore. So let's just say her brains are beautiful,” he adds, nodding to the change in the industry since the #MeToo movement took hold. “She has the ability to ‘look ugly,’ physically and emotionally, to do stupid things, to be the butt of a joke, which is rare. I feel like there is a contingent of women in comedy who don't allow themselves to go there. She does.”
Audiences may not know that Zea, 43, is a mother to a 2-year-old daughter and that sexing it up on camera may not be as easy as she makes it look onscreen. It’s her character, not her, she says. But the way she plays her, just brazen, confident and unapologetic, makes a statement.
“That's all Robin, because Robin's definitely way less intimidated about her body than I truly am after having had my baby, you know? One has body issues that one never had before and even though when I say it I'm like, 'Oh, I have no reason to worry,’” admits Zea. “But we all have an expiration date, so I'm like, 'Let's do this and I'm not going to be ashamed of it.' And I think that's just so lovely and we should all think that way.”
That notion of an expiration date for women in the industry is still an unfortunately real one, and a running and valid concern for Zea, who got her big break in Hollywood acting on the soap Passions. She is working to combat that stigma by moving behind the camera as a director; she directed for the first time on an episode of The Detour last season, and hopes for more chances on the next season. “Actresses, if they’re smart, are hyper-aware of having an expiration date, and I want to stay in the business,” Zea told Variety last week about her directorial debut. “The only real way to guarantee-ish that is to get behind the camera.”
According to Brennan Shroff, executive producer of The Detour, who has been collaborating with Jones and Bee since their years of working on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, the comedy is “a feminist show and a progressive show that pushes against gender stereotypes with jokes.” It’s also about just having fun, which audiences gravitate toward. But it’s mostly about family, which is its main draw, Shroff says, and the concept stems from the creators’ own lives.
“The Parkers are constantly chasing money, and all of us grew up without a lot of money, all of us watched our fathers struggling to make money and make everything seems like it’s all OK,” Shroff told L.A. Weekly. “They’re white but they're not privileged, kind of more like a surreal, funny live-action Simpsons. The Simpsons was a big part of our creative upbringing, and so the show is more Simpsons than National Lampoon’s Vacation. But it [comes down to] a dad who is just struggling to keep it together for his family.”
Although The Detour has its cult following, it's mostly escaped the radar of major media. So its renewal was a relief, as always. “I know it’s hard to cut through the noise of all the TV out there, but when people find it they fall in love with it,” says Shroff, who also directs and writes episodes of the show. “People want to laugh.”
Jones encourages people unfamiliar with the show to watch the pilot, an over-the-top family vacation gone wrong with some gross humor, involving periods and lots of urine. (Yes, it gets weird.) But some of his favorite episodes are ones that are “sweet and tender and tell a great story” — and explore family dynamics.
“Then there's other ones that just like purely make me laugh. Literally just like just outrageously comedic, like, the one this year when we bring the plane down in the wilderness, just the four of us struggling to survive,” Jones told L.A. Weekly, referring to “The Funeral,” directed by Shroff. In the episode, after their plane crashes, the foursome are not only dealing with the death of their terminally ill 90-year-old bush pilot (and dragging him to hide/bury him) but also the aftereffects of all in the family (except Nate), including daughter Delilah (Ashley Gerasimovich) and son Jared (Liam Carroll), getting high on pot-laced gummy bears Nate gives them by accident. It's psychedelic and funny, as Robin lets loose, and the kids express their deep feelings; it also serves as a showcase for the four talented actors, with Jones, again, playing the desperate straight man.
“Last year we had this flashback home-birth episode that just made me laugh from beginning to end as Nate is trying to get to the birth of his children and just surmount the Herculean tasks put before him to get there,” Jones continues. The series' renewal is the culmination of Jones’ ultimate goal to do something that appeals to a broader audience, a show that can be subversive without alienating the lovers of typical family sitcoms.
“I’m proud that we’re still on when there are like 600 TV shows to choose from,” Jones says. “If you like laugh-out-loud comedy, give the show a try because it sits in a really nice sweet spot. We go in places that I don't think people expect, and that is why people come back to watch.”