NBC's 'Andy Barker P.I.': A Nose for Laughs

Bryan Greenberg, above left, and Jay Paulson star in the schmaltzy
Bryan Greenberg, above left, and Jay Paulson star in the schmaltzy "October Road," about an author who returns to his home town. Jeff Goldblum, left, plays Det. Michael Raines, who sees dead people to solve cases in "Raines." (By Guy D'alema -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 15, 2007

"Andy Barker P.I.," a new NBC series about an accidental detective, abounds in qualities that aren't common to contemporary sitcoms: sweet, lovable, good-natured. Maybe even "adorable as a puppy."

Even though (or because) we're only seven years in, it's safe to call it "one of the best comedies of the 21st century!" What it lacks in edge, it makes up for in charm.

For Andy Richter, who plays Andy Barker, the show marks a reunion with series co-creator and exec-producer Conan O'Brien, the brilliant nut who used to employ Richter as his sidekick on NBC's "Late Night" show. It's obvious that all those involved in a major way look at the world through, oh, maybe puce-colored glasses.

Richter plays a young, eager and very mild-mannered accountant who, in the show's premiere tonight, opens his own office in one of those anonymous mini-malls that freckle America's suburbs. What the likable schmo doesn't realize is that the place was formerly occupied by Lew Staziak, a seedy private eye, and that one day, when the wind blows down Andy's shingle, it also blows in a mysterious damsel in distress, just like in the movies. Old movies, anyway.

Since the damsel's of the seductive sort -- actually, more like bossy -- and private eyedom has begun to seem slightly more glamorous than accounting, Andy goes along with the mistake, at least to the point of helping the woman find her missing husband. Downstairs in the mini-mall, however, is a video store run by a wild-eyed goofball named Simon (Tony Hale, perfect in the part) who wants his life to be more like the movies; he encourages Andy to take on this case and, as you can guess, others in weeks to come.

Hence, show.

Richter is an implosive presence who works well when surrounded by the weird and wacky. Barker has to keep his bearings as well as solve the latest mystery -- and continue to ply his chosen trade. Barker likes being an accountant, and he's not some thwarted Walter Mitty type who daydreams desperately about being chased down alleys by hoodlums.

Soon enough, though, Andy is being chased down alleys by hoodlums. He's cautious by nature, so that when the chase progresses to cars, Andy thinks he's being a wild man when he exceeds the 40 mph speed limit -- by about four miles. He'd have an easier time escaping the pursuers, Simon points out, if he'd stop signaling his turns.

When riled, Andy utters such ersatz epithets as "Oh, Mother Hubbard."

The supporting cast, which does more than merely support, includes Marshall Manesch as Wally, a super-patriotic immigrant who runs a kebab restaurant in the mini-mall; Harve Presnell (immensely memorable as the father of a kidnapped housewife in "Fargo") as grumbling Lew Staziack; and Clea Lewis as Jen, Andy's vanilla-wafer wife, who doesn't appreciate her husband and his cohorts turning her backyard barbecue into bedlam as they search for suspicious chickens in the third episode.

"Andy Barker P.I." sails along on an admirably even keel, brightened by moments that are convulsively funny -- visual gags and subtler forms of slapstick. It's the kind of comedy that sneaks up on you. Sneaks up on you and threatens to steal your heart.

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