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‘Detectorists’ Celebrates Male Friendship In An Era Of Its Decline


One of the nice things about Netflix is the opportunity to stumble upon shows that you never would have found otherwise. Some evening months ago, one of my best mates texted me this blunt and attention-getting note: “Detectorists. Watch. Now.” He is smart and has an assertive personality, so of course, I did watch. Now. I was intrigued.

The show is one of the most curiously charming I’ve seen in some time. “Detectorists” is an unusual BBC tale of the daily friendship of two working-class blokes from the nowhere town of Danebury, England. (The show does have a smattering of bawdy language commensurate to such blue-collar, pub-frequenting chaps.) They spend most of their free time in the dirt of the local farmlands looking for ancient subterranean Saxon treasures.

They are Detectorists. Not “metal detectors.” They are quite insistent that one is the tool they use, the other who they are. Don’t confuse them. And it’s not just a hobby, but their life. They are proud members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, which meets monthly to talk of things that interest serious detectorists.

The show is quirky, funny, artistically shot, and wonderfully told. The theme music is worth the price of admission itself. The tall, thin and gaunt Andy Stone (Mackenzie Cook, the show’s writer and director) works odd jobs and has a faithful girlfriend who graciously tolerates his obsession. The shorter, rounder Lance Slater (Toby Jones) drives a forklift for a produce company and is divorced from and still has thoughts for the woman who runs the local New Age trinket shop.

Regular In Every Way Except Their Friendship

Their detecting pursuits, and competition for fame and fortune with other local Detectorists—friend and foe—serves as the foundation for what is the most beautiful and compelling part of their show: their enduring and comfortable friendship as two men. Much of the show is them sharing their dreams, struggles, relationship problems, and detecting strategies, as well as making fun of other detectors who try to horn in on their territory. Andy and Lance are not necessarily praiseworthy, “macho” or heroic men. They are not anyone’s role model or “ideal man.” They are simply two regular guys. But their friendship is a valued and mutual gift that few men have.

Have you ever seen a show centered around the goodness of the day-in, day-out friendship of two relatively normal and decent men? I can’t recall one. Maybe “Psych,” but Shawn and Guster are less mature than their years should demand. “King of the Hill,” but these friendships exist primarily in hours of beer-drinking in the alley. Probably “The Andy Griffith Show.” But in these, the relationships themselves aren’t central as it is in “Detectorists.”

Genuine male friendship is as important as it is rare, unfortunately. One of my kids asked me many years ago, “Dad, besides mom, who is your best friend?” It hit me initially as a strange question. Woman have best friends. Children have best friends. Men don’t have best friends. They have friends to be sure. But not “best” friends.

That is a descriptor used only by kids and women, being a little too touchy-feely for men. But as quickly as I thought that, I realized I had a number of male friends who could indeed qualify as “best.” They have existed at different stages of my life, and I happily explained to my junior inquisitor the ways they have enriched my life.

Nels, my best friend from elementary school, whom I still have. Two best friends from my early married years, Greg and Tommy. We worked together at Greg’s paint store. Derek is my best friend today. He’s the guy who hipped me to the show. These men have been a great blessing to me and a rich enhancement of my life. They have helped make me a better man, father, and husband to be sure.

What Forms Male Best Friends

Male best friends are a rare, if not non-existent, subject in television and film for some reason. That’s a shame. One of the most touching parts of a very touching film was centered on declaring a “best friend.” But it wasn’t between men. Why don’t we talk more about enduring male friendships? We have bromances, you might retort. Dude, please. The first step toward healing is admitting you have a problem.

One of the most distinctive things about male best friends is what typically forms them. They do stuff together. Woman best friends are often more content to simply be together. The Detectorists detect together. They certainly spend a good bit of time on their coffee break in the fields and in the pub talking about the struggles of relationships with women, their competitors, and lack of luck finding treasures. But it is doing something that brings them together and bonds them. Take away the thing they do, and the relationship itself is unlikely to endure.

My first best friendship, since the second grade, came together all those years ago because we loved to fish in Pirates’ Cove (its real name) each day after school. It’s what we did. I still try to visit him every other year or so, and we fish. With my two early adulthood best friends we worked, biked, and talked theology together. My present best friend: We also work together, and talk politics, music, culture and television shows.

There were and are certainly more to our relationships than all these, but it was the doing that bonded us and created the time together to develop our friendship to the status of “best.” It is only after this type of active and long bonding—often requiring many years—that two men can become comfortable enough just being together, sitting quietly without need of words or activity.

Many Men Don’t Have Good Friends

I remember my dad having occasional friends with whom he went camping, sailing, and played tennis. But these were few and far between, which made them distinct and noticeable. He didn’t really have a best friend he hung with a good deal and was well known to us. The reason for this, primarily, was that he was busy working his job, tending our house and yard, keeping us five kids out of trouble on top of volunteering at church and in the community. He didn’t seem to have time to really invest in additional relationships. All of us would have been happy for him to do so.

I think that is the issue with most men, particularly when their children are small. They are busy trying to earn a living, help their wives with their kids, and merely keep the wheels on life. Women, of course, do all these things too, if not more so. But something unique and mysterious in the wiring of a woman allows her to develop and maintain close “girlfriend” relationships in the midst of all the mom activities. The female relationship grows more deeply in their relating self, rather than their “doing” doing self.

It can take place in the midst of their busyness, over lunches at work, talking about the struggles at home and on the job, exercising. It can develop while waiting for their children’s soccer or baseball games to wrap up, in the carpool line, or over the back fence. Men cannot develop multi-tasking friendships. They need something to bond them to other men. Women just need the opportunity to chat. And it is usually emotional life experiences and their children that bond them together. Not so with men.

Real, enduring, meaty male friendships should be more common. Wives should encourage and give their husbands time to develop and invest in such relationships. It is good for their children to see such things, as it shows them another and essential part of healthy manhood. It shows them an important and necessary angle on their father—he becomes more dimensional.

Time with best friends provides men short and matchless Sabbaths from the grind of life. They help them get perspective, enhancing us in new ways, through the strong and unique influence of other men. A man’s best friend can serve as his counselor, confessor, and confidante. A man’s best friend can keep him accountable in living a straight life, helping him stay between the white lines of life.

No one else can do this for a man like another man. No one can talk to a man with such frank boldness and not have him feel scolded or demeaned. Not his boss. Not his wife. Not his mother or father. Not his children. A man is allowed to be another type of person around his male friend and only around his male friends. Minding one’s behavior is necessary, but a man friend allows another man to relax that a bit now and then in safe and healthy ways. Only men can really understand and appreciate what this means.

Every man needs a best friend, and it’s not a dog. Doing so makes men and the world all the better. “Detectorists” is a sweet show that demonstrates for us how true this is in a wonderful way.