Sub-Cult

How Mystery Team Revealed Donald Glover Was a Star in the Making

Before he was Troy Barnes, Childish Gambino, Earn Marks, or young Lando Calrissian, Donald Glover showcased his star charisma in this high-concept comedy.

by | May 23, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by Roadside Attractions)

When you’ve been writing about movies and pop culture for over two decades, as I have, you get a lot of things egregiously wrong. A lot. I left a preview screening of what I saw as the ponderous and heavy-handed Avatar convinced that I had just witnessed one of the worst flops in cinematic history, not one of the all-time biggest hits.

I similarly spent My Big Fat Greek Wedding wondering what possible audience could exist for a bland big-screen sitcom with very little in the way of conflict (or comedy, or drama, or personality), written and directed by an uncharismatic unknown, before the film went on to become one of the top-grossing hits in American independent film history.

But every once in a while, I get something right.

During Sundance in 2009, I saw a low-budget independent film called Mystery Team (53%) from sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy and first-time director Dan EckmanIt’s a goofy riff on Encyclopedia Brown and the boy detective literary sub-genre about a trio of junior shamuses who find themselves exhilaratingly and terrifyingly immersed in a seamy underworld of sex, drugs, and murder when they’re tasked with solving a case just a tad more serious than the usual lost kitten, hopscotch dispute, or lunch sack fraud.

I liked pretty much everything about the scrappy, overachieving film, written by and starring hungry, young sketch and stand-up performers still in their mid-twenties, but I particularly loved the lead actor. He was funny. He was lovable. He possessed the ineffable quality known as charisma in great abundance. He was ridiculously good-looking in a boyish way that made it easy to buy him as an adorable, emotionally stunted eighteen-year-old, even if he himself was deep into his twenties. He was a terrific actor with a wonderfully expressive face equally suited for drama and comedy, and though Mystery Team was a broad, high-concept goofball comedy, he made its dramatic coming-of-age elements work.

He was, in other words, a star in the truest sense. I filed him away in the mental Rolodex as someone to watch, someone who would be doing big things.

(Photo by Roadside Attractions)

That actor was Donald Glover, and nine years later, he is one of the hottest entertainers alive in multiple mediums. The world is agog with excitement and praise for his zeitgeist-capturing music video for “This Is America,” which has mesmerized the public like no video since Beyonce dropped “Lemonade.” His TV series Atlanta has similarly and rightly been hailed as a perceptive, daring, important masterpiece deeply plugged in to the complexities and pain of the world we live in. On the big screen, Glover is about to become a part of pop culture history when he takes on the iconic role of Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story, the Star Wars spin-off starring Alden Ehrenreich both eagerly anticipated and dreaded in equal measure.

These days, Glover is revered as a creative genius, but in his enormously appealing initial incarnation, he exuded childlike innocence and guileless enthusiasm, whether he was playing big-hearted jock geek Troy Barnes on Community or Jason Rogers, boy detective, in Mystery Team. 

Glover stars in the latter as the leader of the titular crime-solving group, a trio of eighteen-year-olds who were once feted by their community for solving adorably child-sized crimes when they were young and now are pitied by everyone for never outgrowing the “boy detective” stage.

Not only is Jason the leader, he’s also the idea man and a master of disguise, even if he’s often distractingly unconvincing. For Jason, being a detective mainly entails wearing ridiculous fake mustaches while portraying comically anachronistic versions of cultural archetypes: old-time hobo, old-time lumberjack, old-time rich man, old-time photographer, and so on. Glover’s lovably inept detective regularly deploys an idiot grin that implicitly conveys, “You’re buying this, right? I’d hate to be making a fool of myself for nothing.” He tries to sell each of these preposterous get-ups through enthusiasm and energy alone, and he never succeeds.

He’s joined by fellow Derrick Comedy mainstay and co-screenwriter Dominic Dierkes as Charlie Day, the self-proclaimed “strongest boy in town.” Charlie is the muscle of the group, in addition to being a Ralph Wiggum-like disseminator of oddly poetic non-sequiturs. Alas, Charlie’s Samson-like strength seems to exist only in his own mind — all available evidence suggests he’s as weak as a newborn kitten, but not quite as bright.

(Photo by Roadside Attractions)

Novelist, Derrick Comedy member, and final co-screenwriter D.C. Pierson rounds out the trio as Duncan Wheeler, the “smartest boy in town” (also self-proclaimed), a bowl cut-sporting doofus with a bit of a Harry Potter vibe who mistakes his ability to rattle off random facts from trivia books for intellectual brilliance.

These three sad but oddly endearing weirdos have managed to hold onto the minds of small children deep into their teenage years. They’re has-beens facing an uncertain future until a little girl asks them to solve something a little different and more intense than their usual fare: the double murder of her parents. Jason seizes upon this as an opportunity to crack the biggest case of their short, not terribly eventful careers and finally prove he and his pals are real detectives.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Kelly Peters (a pre-stardom Aubrey Plaza), the older sister of the little girl who hires the Mystery Team, is so alluring — in that deadpan, monotone, vaguely Goth Aubrey Plaza kind of way — that she causes a flustered Jason to reconsider his strong conviction that girls are yucky.

Plaza is far from the only future comedy star lending her idiosyncratic presence to this project, though. Saturday Night Live’s Bobby Moynihan is hilarious and also deeply sad as an over-enthusiastic shopkeeper who offers the trio clues, his support, and ice cream sandwiches, in addition to looming as a terrifying portent of what Jason’s future might hold if he’s unable to let go the illusions and fantasies of childhood and truly grow up. A young Ellie Kemper also makes an indelible impression as a pig-tailed Mystery Team super-fan who is even more deluded than the Team itself.

Like Betty Thomas’ Brady Bunch movies, Mystery Team earns big laughs by placing clean-cut exemplars of a sunnier, more innocent America into a sleazy contemporary context. But where the Brady Bunch films plopped Sherwood Schwartz’s outsized family into the ’90s, Mystery Team‘s doofuses look like they could have emerged whole cloth from a 1950s Boy Scout handbook, or a 1980s Steven Spielberg movie about All-American boys discovering the dark underbelly of suburbia.

(Photo by Roadside Attractions)

The movie’s sly, inspired juxtaposition of Spielbergian innocence and Cinemax-style sleaze wouldn’t be as hilarious and weirdly poignant if the filmmakers weren’t so thoroughly invested in the retro wholesomeness of the milieu they’re so lovingly sending up. A distinct affection for a bygone era of American small-town life undercuts the film’s pungent cynicism.

Thanks in no small part to Glover, there’s a welcome sincerity that makes Mystery Team so much more than the glorified Funny or Die sketch it might look like on paper. The film may spring from a one-joke premise, but that joke works so brilliantly and consistently that subsequent jokes seem unnecessary, if not counter-productive.

Jason begins the movie an untroubled cartoon character who is even more preposterous and childlike when he’s pretending to be someone else, but over the course of the film, he grows up, comes of age, and ends up older, wiser, and ready to let go of some of his childish delusions.

How good of an actor is Glover? When Pierson’s character tells him that he’s going to college the following year, and that he assumed Jason would follow suit since they all took the ACTs and toured campuses together, Jason sees it as an act of betrayal — he had no plans to actually attend college, and thought the standardized tests and university visits were an elaborate goof.  The sadness and confusion of the moment registers powerfully in Glover’s performance, despite the absurdity of the situation and the film as a whole.

Mystery Team doesn’t need to provide a satisfying emotional arc for its lead character, though. It’s a funny enough dark comedy that it doesn’t have to do anything more than be hilarious, quotable, and filled with memorable characters. But that’s ultimately what makes Mystery Team such an irresistible cult movie; it does everything better than it has to, starting with Glover making the film’s lead someone worth caring about, not just someone to laugh at.

In the decade or so since his feature film debut, Donald Glover has evolved into something remarkable, if not unprecedented, as a man and an artist. But Mystery Team serves as eminently quotable, re-watchable proof that he’s been an extraordinary talent from the very beginning.


Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

emmy awards History Photos cars YouTube Premium jurassic park LGBTQ San Diego Comic-Con Creative Arts Emmys Action rotten movies we love dc Amazon Prime Video crime drama spider-verse critics worst Country halloween posters sports Superheroes Cosplay Polls and Games cancelled TV shows TBS Tomatazos Music telelvision zombies jamie lee curtis Comics on TV Vudu gangster Syfy obituary concert television Countdown cops Crunchyroll teaser 007 Academy Awards ViacomCBS joker marvel comics Disney streaming service stoner Rocketman BBC America Peacock true crime Lionsgate TV renewals discovery TLC Spring TV Premiere Dates sopranos satire Marvel Tarantino First Reviews vs. dreamworks war Writers Guild of America Mystery independent biography Television Critics Association Drama remakes sequel all-time Schedule sitcom First Look what to watch TCM comedies El Rey superhero french kong Stephen King Character Guide IMDb TV hist 4/20 critic resources Set visit The Academy high school science fiction mob technology comic book movie Image Comics rom-coms toronto Star Wars Film Festival Comic Book Captain marvel thriller GIFs superman international Fargo foreign BAFTA Oscars fast and furious award winner Shondaland Freeform adaptation rt labs critics edition Trivia Certified Fresh green book Avengers Animation video cats mission: impossible Mary Poppins Returns pirates of the caribbean Binge Guide child's play kids Alien Instagram Live unscripted CW Seed Esquire romance debate breaking bad Disney TNT Ovation SDCC Awards king kong PlayStation deadpool The Arrangement USA australia batman Brie Larson Amazon Studios aliens south america canceled Legendary 71st Emmy Awards comic justice league 21st Century Fox Sundance TV One versus Elton John Travel Channel spy thriller Television Academy WarnerMedia spinoff BBC Fantasy IFC Films spain olympics Star Trek Hulu Rock kaiju romantic comedy Bravo Marvel Studios Emmy Nominations game show Apple TV+ mcc HBO Max TCA 2017 boxing BBC One Family historical drama screenings Nominations Turner Classic Movies Rom-Com Discovery Channel Pet Sematary latino genre AMC Plus Musicals FXX Chilling Adventures of Sabrina YouTube E3 robots festival japan RT21 based on movie dexter reboot women Watching Series Fall TV medical drama Universal Pictures NBA TCA Winter 2020 Netflix Christmas movies 93rd Oscars lord of the rings MSNBC vampires halloween tv political drama Pixar Women's History Month psycho Comedy Song of Ice and Fire rotten japanese Neflix YA FOX Ghostbusters king arthur Sony Pictures Rocky comic book movies CBS All Access chucky Hallmark Christmas movies Musical Apple TV Plus Comic-Con@Home 2021 biopic Starz sag awards spanish zombie disaster social media Hallmark cults casting anime ID dceu Netflix Mary Tyler Moore name the review Podcast cartoon live event AMC FX universal monsters Arrowverse adventure New York Comic Con Tubi blaxploitation game of thrones dogs Nat Geo 2018 reviews Lifetime Christmas movies worst movies Lifetime Super Bowl docudrama directors DC Comics ABC Family quibi new york Mudbound miniseries Christmas tv talk diversity Wes Anderson MCU cooking Western slashers scorecard Chernobyl National Geographic Walt Disney Pictures rt labs fresh LGBT young adult Spectrum Originals Funimation ABC Signature best CBS Pop hollywood docuseries Opinion parents 45 politics children's TV serial killer 2020 Best and Worst Exclusive Video cancelled television cinemax Tumblr The Walking Dead live action news Quiz zero dark thirty Marvel Television 2017 elevated horror Crackle festivals streaming movies Lucasfilm dramedy GoT Teen CMT Reality Competition Year in Review Britbox Awards Tour A24 SundanceTV sequels Broadway renewed TV shows travel aapi free movies Paramount Network Spike American Society of Cinematographers Cannes TIFF BET Awards 72 Emmy Awards canceled TV shows Paramount hidden camera TCA godzilla Martial Arts transformers Horror blockbusters cancelled OneApp target Turner Masterpiece Disney+ Disney Plus composers blockbuster doctor who NBC rt archives a nightmare on elm street space monster movies Biopics 99% black Amazon Prime Columbia Pictures Holiday book Marathons documentaries Holidays scary HBO video on demand Extras scene in color hispanic heritage month stop motion Disney Channel PBS christmas movies Infographic Black History Month 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Classic Film nfl singing competition Showtime Epix The Purge nature Nickelodeon BET Superheroe ITV Hear Us Out Mary poppins Calendar italian crossover 2021 2019 Cartoon Network Heroines indie spanish language 73rd Emmy Awards Winter TV Shudder new zealand police drama Black Mirror Apple know your critic Anna Paquin VOD Interview franchise movie psychological thriller DC Universe Paramount Plus legend Endgame Tokyo Olympics saw FX on Hulu indiana jones football Acorn TV laika Pirates Pop TV The Walt Disney Company werewolf NYCC Sneak Peek anthology X-Men dragons crime USA Network Sundance Now DirecTV Warner Bros. Sci-Fi See It Skip It Box Office 2016 boxoffice black comedy ghosts adenture VICE mutant APB asian-american ESPN finale TCA Awards 90s period drama revenge Food Network crime thriller supernatural royal family mockumentary ABC Amazon Election comics Adult Swim die hard series binge ratings marvel cinematic universe basketball heist movie Pacific Islander Trailer IFC Grammys Disney Plus movies animated archives Pride Month richard e. Grant strong female leads art house RT History theme song TV movies Sundance TV trailers HBO Go Dark Horse Comics VH1 talk show venice razzies Fox News hispanic Comedy Central TruTV criterion CNN Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Thanksgiving Summer Mindy Kaling wonder woman Red Carpet PaleyFest Ellie Kemper Baby Yoda Film golden globe awards action-comedy prank Kids & Family DGA streaming suspense 1990s 20th Century Fox YouTube Red TV new star wars movies films The Witch WGN Fox Searchlight natural history Toys Video Games nbcuniversal Trophy Talk harry potter twilight facebook witnail spider-man President book adaptation classics comiccon Universal stand-up comedy The CW james bond OWN Logo screen actors guild Emmys cancelled TV series SXSW Winners documentary GLAAD 2015 24 frames Reality DC streaming service A&E feel good toy story slasher popular Valentine's Day E! dark golden globes scary movies comic books TV Land MTV