If you feel like you’re in need of stories that are emotionally realistic but won’t leave you feeling like a shell of a person, do yourself a favor and try out “Detectorists” and “Catastrophe,” two British TV shows that are available on Netflix and Amazon (respectively). “Detectorists” follows metal detector enthusiasts in rural England and manages not to be patronizing or depressing, and “Catastrophe” follows a couple brought together by an accidental pregnancy, the result of a brief affair on a business trip, and doesn’t sugarcoat the reality of virtual strangers agreeing to spend their lives together – also without being depressing. It can be tough to find a show that feels so true to life it makes you nervous to watch but that resists making you miserable, and these two shows pull it off with style.
British shows often have shorter seasons than American ones, and both “Detectorists” and “Catastrophe” stick to six half-hour episodes per season, which, for obvious reasons, gives them a greater chance for tight storytelling. The limited time also eliminates nearly all forced character development or useless plotlines that tend to crop up in American comedies. British shows are also generally written by only one or two people, rather than a large team of writers, which can make stories feel more seamless and improve continuity. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan created, write, and star in “Catastrophe,” and it’s hard to say if the show could get away with its often near-vicious tone if it weren’t being so carefully constructed by people with such a clear, uniform vision. “Rob” and “Sharon” (their characters) are cruel in love, easily slipping into what many would consider abusive language for a romantic partner (or anyone, really). Their chemistry is just as strong and unbridled when they’re fighting as when they’re joking around, and it can be frightening to watch them go after each other so ruthlessly. But this show isn’t meant to comfort the average person; it’s about Sharon and Rob, and, for whatever reason, Sharon and Rob both need a little madness and nastiness in their relationships. It’s a very specific story about people with very specific needs.
Despite – or maybe because of – its understated tone and subject matter, “Detectorists” has its own way of pushing you to the edge of emotional discomfort. The show is written and directed by Mackenzie Crook (who is also one of the stars), and he and the cast are very careful to keep the audience from pitying the subjects. The characters are mostly small-town metal-detecting enthusiasts, and this makes them, in theory, an easy target for mean humor or condescending sympathy, but instead they’re funny and perfectly happy being who they are. The show manages to strike a balance, showing us the absurdity of spending your life wandering empty fields, picking up mostly old soda caps, hoping to make an impossible discovery of gold, but at the same time making it clear that these people are not mentally ill or pathetic but relatable, if quirky. We can laugh with them. Andy (Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones), the main characters, are often socially inept and have difficulty with relationships. For most of the second season, Andy is frozen as his girlfriend, with whom he has a baby, tries to convince him to temporarily move with her to Botswana and have an adventure (and do archaeological work). It can be frustrating to watch him struggle, and often refuse, to even communicate with her about it. As with Sharon or Rob on “Catastrophe,” Andy is not necessarily someone we fully identify with or even recognize, but we’re given such a clear picture of his life that we understand his fears and reluctance to leave behind everything he knows. His story might not be close to yours, and you may even find the level of his anxiety baffling, but you’ll never find it unbelievable.
When you believe a character, you can empathize with them, and “Catastrophe,” with its very unsentimental romance, and “Detectorists,” with its socially awkward, treasure-obsessed characters, prove this. Both shows are also lessons in restraint. If Rob and Sharon fought even a little bit more or didn’t balance out their bluntness with a deeper kindness towards each other, they would be unbearable to watch. Similarly, if Lance and Andy showed no signs of character growth or became bitter about their years of fruitless treasure-hunting, what fun would it be? The characters on both shows are very aware of their peculiarities, and they’re okay with them. The only thing for the audience to do is enjoy watching them go about their strange, idiosyncratic, specific lives.