Andy Richter’s sitcom batting average is currently at .500. “Andy Richter Controls the Universe,” his first foray into sitcom life after leaving Conan O’Brien’s sidecar, was an underappreciated little gem. His follow-up, “Quintuplets,” was five little identical piles of crap. His third time out is with “Andy Barker, P.I.,” premiering tonight on NBC at 9:30 p.m., and it is happily much closer to the former than the latter.
The show’s premise is pretty simple — Barker is a C.P.A. who has just acquired a new office in one of those generic Southern California two-level strip malls, an office that it just so happens used to belong to a private investigator. Before Barker can put his new name plate up, someone comes into the office assuming Barker is a P.I., and hires him for a missing person case. Barker takes the gig because he needs the money, and he finds that he likes the work. And thus begins his career as “a private-eye accountant combination.”
Barker is a total corn-fed good boy. The harshest language he uses is expletives like “cheese and crackers,” “you rascal,” and “oh fudge” (and, even still, he’ll ask folks to pardon his French). He’s also a very honest man who, quite simply, loves accounting. His C.P.A. background ends up informing things in his new P.I. life, although it doesn’t always work out for the best. Take, for example, the instance when some bad-guy goons decide they’re going to have to kill him:
Andy: Or, I could sign a nondisclosure agreement. They’re binding in court and they’d leave you less vulnerable to litigation.
Goon: Shoot him.
Of course, this could all be painfully stupid in the wrong hands. However, Richter is great. This show and its writing is perfectly suited for his style of comedy — it’s light and silly, but it only works when delivered with absolute sincerity and a straight face, and that’s exactly when Richter is at his best, as fans of his time on Conan can attest to. For example, in the premiere episode, when Barker’s wife expresses concern over his new profession and the risks he could face, he tries to explain how he really enjoyed trying to find the missing guy and running down dark alleys:
Andy: You know that feeling that I get when I hit the equal sign on the calculator and the number on the calculator is the same number that was on the worksheet? … It felt like that, honey.
Again, on paper, this walks a fine line between amusing and dreadful. But Richter is tone-perfect, and gives these lines the exact delivery they need. But as good as his performance is, it’s not even the best of the show.
Some might think I’m talking about Tony Hale (whose Buster wound up becoming my favorite member of the Bluth family over the course of “Arrested Development”), but I’m not. Which isn’t meant as a slight — Hale is quite entertaining as Simon, the manager of Video Riot, a rental store right below Andy’s new office. Simon’s a movie buff, but the show happily backs off the deluge of movie references pretty quickly (while funny, it was a little forced and clichéd, and could get old right quick). He plays the basic kinda-odd sidekick role, and he does it quite well.
But Richter and Hale, good though they are, pale in comparison to Harve Presnell.
Presnell is one of “those guys” who continually pops up in flicks and shows (check out his IMDb resume to figure out where you know him from). Here, he plays Lew Staziak, a crusty old dude who is a retired P.I. Staziak acts as Barker’s mentor, advising him on some cases and sometimes getting actively involved (the direction of the show, smartly, seems to be heading more towards the “actively involved” angle). Staziak is to this show as Alec Baldwin is to “30 Rock” (pay attention, boys and girls — this will be on the SATs). He’s got these ridiculous lines that would be stupid as shit coming out of anyone else, but he nails each and every one of them flawlessly. Take the following exchange:
Lew: No disrespect to your wife, but it’s amazing you ever got that oven jockey to uncross her honey sticks for you.
Andy: That is disrespectful.
I could easily envision Baldwin’s character having the exact same conversation on “30 Rock.” But that’s not to suggest that they’re the same character at all, because they’re not. Staziak is a hard-boiled guy from another era. He lives somewhat in the past, constantly referring to ‘Nam and dirty hippies and things buried under Shamu’s tank in San Diego that are best left buried, etc. And again, as with much of this show, what could easily be turned into something stupid or cliché ends up being quite hilarious.
The show’s plots cover some fairly basic private investigator topics in the early episodes, which is to be expected. But even there, they’re having fun with the storylines — the third episode involves Barker’s investigation into a possible “bad” company, but it’s not some nasty corporation; instead, it’s a potentially diabolical chicken-supply company that may be screwing over Barker’s new buddy Wally (who runs Afghan Kabob, another place in the strip mall). And in another episode, Barker’s two worlds collide as he finds that the case he’s investigating has interfered with his ability to get his father-in-law’s tax return filed on time. This leads Barker and company on a wild chase to get back his laptop, and it’s one of the best episodes.
So yeah, I’m quite a fan of this show. It has a unique aesthetic, thanks to the music and pacing and direction, which makes it feel like a ’70s detective flick-lite. And not that there’s anything wrong with many of the current “quirky” single-camera comedies, but this also happens to be a nice breath of fresh air (although it does share some elements with those other comedies, like some moments of sheer lunacy or the occasional flash of fantasy). The show definitely starts off a little on the slow side, though still not bad, but it quickly gets its legs under it and is going full steam by the third or fourth episode. And even in those early episodes, you can just sorta sense that the show is onto something. In fact, my original intention was only to watch the first two episodes for this review, but I ended up getting roped in enough that I wound up watching all six right in a row.
Now I have no idea what the outlook for this show is. They filmed six episodes, and right off the bat it appears that NBC only plans to air five of them (one episode on the site is billed as “internet only,” and it’s an odd choice since it’s the episode featuring both Amy Sedaris and Ed Asner as guest stars). And as I mentioned in my roundup earlier this week, NBC is now futzing with the show’s schedule and air times a bit, so it sorta feels like the network may not have a whole lot of faith in the show. All of which is to say, you should catch it while you can, because yet again Richter may find himself in a show that’s not long for this world. But at least it bumps him up to two outta three, which, according to Meat Loaf, ain’t bad.
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. This weekend, he’s going to a bachelor party in Savannah, Georgia, during March Madness and St. Paddy’s Day. So it may be quite some time before he’s sober enough to write another review.
"Andy Barker, P.I." / The TV Whore
Mar. 15, 2007
TV Reviews | March 15, 2007 | Comments ()