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

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.

'Raines'

"Do you talk to yourself, Detective?" asks the patronizing shrink.

"Yes," he replies. "I can't think of anyone more interesting to talk to."

He isn't really talking to himself, however. He's talking to the hallucinated images of murder victims. Thus the central gimmick of "Raines," an NBC crime drama with an unmistakable resemblance to USA Network's "Monk."

In "Monk," Tony Shalhoub plays a detective with obsessive-compulsive obsessions. And compulsions. Jeff Goldblum plays Det. Michael "I-see-dead-people" Raines with less fey whimsy and more serious introspection. Goldblum seems a trifle embarrassed by the obviousness of the gimmick -- Raines tells a colleague that "it's just my 'hook' " -- but he skillfully manages to make it palatable if never quite plausible.

Graham Yost, who created the show and wrote the pilot, gets things going right off the bat tonight, and we find Raines at a crime scene talking with witnesses and other cops. The camera pans, and there stands the very late Julio Santiago, visible only to Raines and to us.

At first the talking stiff is a bloody mess, but the producers wisely clean him up as Raines gets to know him. They drive around the city looking for possible suspects and winding up on the doorstep of A Martinez, skilled veteran of too many episodic TV shows to count. Go back 30 years or so and you could well encounter Martinez as a knife-wielding teenager on "Hawaii 5-0." Times have mercifully changed; in tonight's premiere, he plays a Hispanic councilman who has earned considerable enmity among other Hispanics by taking a hard line on illegal immigration.

In some of his roles, Goldblum has come across as antsy and mannered. But for television, a close-up and intimate medium, Goldblum has toned down the tics and tricks. He gives the character of Raines a solid and gratifying humanity, enough to lift "just another" cop opera into a considerably more rarefied realm.

'October Road'

Anyone masochistic enough to miss the hyper-sensitive schmaltz of "thirtysomething" or wear out their DVD of "The Big Chill" has a dubious treat in store tonight: the premiere of ABC's "October Road," a wistful wallow in misplaced nostalgia. The show is as commercial and mechanical as an entry-level Mercedes, but not as emotionally involving.

It's the summer of 1997 when the alleged drama begins, although the town of Knights Ridge, Mass., where it takes place, seems to enjoy the luxury of year-round autumn, always golden and dewy and crisp. Young Nick Garrett (Bryan Greenberg) is enjoying a post-coital cuddle with girlfriend Hannah Daniels (Laura Prepon) before leaving his dear home town, and a bevy of bosom buddies, for a trip to New York.

What a long goodbye it is, with Nick's beer-swilling cronies waving and shouting and playing air-guitar and air-bass as part of their all-air rock band. Bye bye, Nick, old boy! See you in six weeks! Ten years later, Nick's still missing, and autumnal summer has turned to autumnal autumn. Nick struck it rich, having written "Turtle on a Snare Drum," apparently the most successful novel in the history of novelty.

Nick is having trouble finishing a follow-up book, however, and this is used as the pretext for his first trip back to Knights' Ridge in a decade.

The town appears untouched by Wal-Mart or Starbucks -- although big-screen TV has somehow made it through the time warp that protects the city from the outside world. Look, there's cute little Sam, age 10, delivering the daily paper from door to door, just like in 1957, much less 1997. Funny thing about Sam; He was born to Hannah, the girl Nick left behind, just months after Nick's departure. And just like Nick, the boy is allergic to peanuts!

Whatever corny, maudlin and hokey things could happen to someone in Nick's situation manage to happen -- replete, of course, with recriminating glowers from friends he used as characters in his novel. Hannah tells him life is an apple cart and he'd best not upset it.

Meanwhile that old gang of Nick's assembles at 3 on Saturday afternoon -- insisting Nick join them for the apparently weekly rite -- to air-band their way through, heaven help us, "The Boys Are Back in Town." A whole decade and not one of them has learned to play an actual instrument.

Andy Barker P.I. (30 minutes) premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4; Raines (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 4; October Road (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7.

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