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Andy Richter Patrols the Universe
2007-03-07 12:29
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Well, this has got to be some sort of record. I am known for anticipating and lamenting the demise of new television shows well in advance of the news of their actual cancellation, but I don't believe I've ever started mourning for a show before its premiere. It can't bode well for "Andy Barker P.I." that the NBC website is offering six entire episodes online for free before the show ever goes over broadcast airwaves. Perhaps sponsor TurboTax was so tickled by the idea of a sitcom about an accountant who gets diverted into crimefighting that they made NBC an offer they could't refuse. Or maybe the network doesn't feel like properly promoting "Barker" and this is their way of covering their backs. It wouldn't do to have show creator/excecutive producer and "Tonight Show" heir apparent Conan O'Brien unhappy with his bosses, now would it?

I used to watch "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" religiously in college. My favorite bit was where they would drive around behind the desk. You'd think they would run out of ideas for that particular sketch fairly rapidly, but no. I haven't watched a minute of "Conan" since Andy Richter left. It's not so much that I don't think O'Brien is capable of being funny on his own. The man did write "Marge vs. the Monorail." It's more that I don't think I can take watching Max Weinberg try to act any more than I already have. In any event, I thought Richter made the right move leaving "Late Night" when he did. Who wants to be Ed McMahon their whole lives? Besides, I suppose, the genuine article. I felt pretty confident Andy would land on his feet, but he's had a bad streak of luck since striking out on his own. America wasn't ready for the too-weird-for-its-own-good "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," and his performance on the dire "Quintuplets" had the distinct reek of contractual obligation. His film career "peaked" when he played opposite James Woods in Scary Movie 2's pre-credits Exorcist parody. The last great straight man deserves better.

The discipline and timing required of a real good comedy straight man is a dying art. If you watch an old pairing like the Smothers Brothers or Morecambe & Wise with anyone much under thirty, they'll probably be confused as to why one member of each duo seems like such dead weight. Nowadays most ensemble comedy operates as a game of can you top this. That's one reason why I still don't feel as if Jason Bateman has gotten enough credit for how marvelous his work on "Arrested Development" was. It wasn't a traditional straight role, as Michael Bluth only seemed a normal functioning human being by relative degrees to the rest of his family, but Bateman still deserves special praise for providing an anchor amid all that chaos. Perhaps his choices of roles since have been a natural opposite reaction. When last I saw Bateman in Smokin' Aces, his performance was so over-the-top that he should have been wearing a tiara. Andy Richter, on the other hand, is a pure straight man. His persona is so open, innocent, guileless, and old-fashioned that you just can't wait to laugh at him.

"Controls the Universe," with its storylines involving fringe religious cults and 19th century businessghosts, was often more bizarre than it was laugh-out-loud funny. I'd still like to see an eventual DVD release for the show, but I can understand why it didn't catch on. I quite liked Jonathan Slavin on that show as Andy's disturbing officemate. He's since resurfaced on "My Name Is Earl," which isn't too surprising. What underemployed, vaguely funny-looking character actor hasn't earned at least one "Earl" guest shot by now? "Andy Barker P.I." resembles "My Name Is Earl" quite strongly. They're both shot in widescreen HD with mostly long, patient wide angles broken up by occasional comedy action sequences. They both feature large expanded casts with many faces of varieties you don't often see on prime time. I don't think that "Barker" is as much directly ripping off "Earl" as the two comedies share an obvious inspiration. If "My Name Is Earl" is a present-day riff on Raising Arizona, "Barker" could be a sanitized, exurban reinterpretation of The Big Lebowksi. I'm not just saying that because David Huddleston appears in one early show as Andy's father-in-law. Richter's protagonist, like The Dude, becomes accidentally involved in detective work. Both pieces are set in an alternate-reality version of Los Angeles where everyone you meet seems straight out of creative writing class. It's funny, but as filmmakers the Coen brothers are so distinctive that few really try to make movies in their style. Now NBC has two comedies that heavily draw upon their love of quirky characters and obsession with understatement airing on the same night.

Things have changed quite a bit since "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" flopped. For one thing, at that time single-camera shows with no laugh track were the exception and not the rule. Now NBC's entire Thursday night lineup is a two-hour four-show block of them. Cheap high-definition cameras make a big difference too. "Andy Barker" looks like a movie and gets to have big explosions and surprising violence. People get shot in this show! Not shot at, but shot. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. In any event, the episodes that you can preview on the NBC website show some rapid progress. The writing staff (which in addition to O'Brien features my Hollywood crush Jane Espenson) seems adept at realizing the show's weak spots and immediately addressing them. The pilot makes it appear as if Andy is going to hide his detective gig from his wife, a hackneyed plot device if there ever was one. By the second show she's in the loop. Dialogue in earlier episodes establishes that the Barkers have children, but it's distracting that no evidence is seen of them. Then the fifth episode rolls around and it's the best of the lot so far because it balances not just Andy's accountancy and his sleuthing, but his responsibilities to his family as well. And who ever juxtaposed the search for a stuffed toy elephant with psychedelic shots of Albanian bikini babes playing badminton? I'm pretty sure that that at least is a TV first for "Andy Barker."

The concept for the show isn't the most original thing ever (and the double-crossing Russian femme fatale story in the pilot has been done to death), but "Andy Barker" has a great supporting cast around a likable lead. Harve Pressnel, who played Bill Macy's father-in-law in Fargo, is invaluable as the completely insane semiretired private eye whose office and responsibilities Andy inadvertently assumes. Marshall Manesh plays overcompensating Afghani restauranteur Wally, whose patriotism-themed falafel joint has a sign on the wall bearing the legend "MSG NO, USA YES!" After some confusion about her character's role in the first two episodes Clea Lewis gets some good lines as Andy's wife, although I think there are probably better acting role models than Victoria Jackson. And then there's Tony Hale, who I would watch in almost anything (I draw the line however for the Larry the Cable Guy movie). Hale's Simon is a wannabe womanizer who lives on a cot in the back behind his video store and follows Andy around on cases because he feels his knowledge of gangster movies will be useful. It's a little odd watching Hale play an almost grown-up after three unforgettable seasons as Buster Bluth, but the writers keep feeding him all the best lines. Andy's black assistant: "I can read lips. My brother is deaf." Simon: "I like Stevie Wonder." And one more: "Hey sunshine, are you looking to buy or rent?"

While the single funniest thing in the six "Andy Barker" eps available for preview is the decidedly lowbrow spectacle of an obese heart attack victim rolling down a hill, for the most part the episodes get smarter and tighter almost every time out. The "online-only" episode (well, they're all online-only at this point) with Amy Sedaris is an exception, since Sedaris's unrestrained hamming takes us out of the show's reality in a way the rest of the cast works very hard not to do. Most of the best jokes on the show are random asides and blink-and-you'll-miss-it sight gags like "Arrested Development" at its most inspired. "Barker" has respect for its characters but celebrates in the ridiculousness of their actions, as the half-baked episode titles ("Dial 'M' for Laptop," "Three Days of the Chicken") imply. I have an immediate affection for a show that can simultaneously recall "The X-Files" and "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" with an absurdist story involving corrupt Federal Department of Agriculture employees and the world's most nefarious poultry cartel. I also really like the device of having most episodes end with Andy being sent out on a ridiculous mission that's completely forgotten by the next week's show.

I like the show so much, in fact, that I am certain they will cancel it. I don't see how giving the six episodes away for free is going to help ratings, since most of the people who would be watching this show now aren't going to be anticipating new episodes on broadcast TV for another two months. Maybe they are hoping Internet buzz will carry the day. Well, I'm on the Internet. Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!

Sooner as opposed to later: "Idol" breakdown.

2007-03-08 03:27:41
1.   T Money
Mark -

I haven't seen the new Richter show yet (in fact, until reading your column, I wasn't aware that it was streaming online). But judging by your description - and the Conan O'Brien connection - I'd have to guess that one of its antecedents was the famed O'Brien/Robert Smigel pilot "Lookwell," from the early '90s. I'd imagine you're familiar with this but, if not, it features Adam West as a washed-up actor, semi-famous for playing a private detective on a short-lived 1970s television show, who delusionally tries to become a detective in real life. It's maybe my favorite 22 minutes of television ever. I hope they managed to capture some of that magic in this new show.

2007-03-08 10:25:05
2.   Jon Weisman
I loved Andy Richter Controls the Universe, so I've been looking forward to this. As far as showing the episodes online first, yes, if it generates Internet buzz, it can only help.

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