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Josh Reviews Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series!

November 15th, 2010

Andy Richter has headlined two terrific but quickly-cancelled TV series.  A few years after the demise of Andy Richter Controls the Universe (which was cancelled after FOX aired 14 of the 19 episodes produced), Mr. Richter stepped into the lead of Andy Barker, P.I. on NBC.  The peacock network cancelled that show after a mere six episodes.

After waiting years for both series to see the light of day on DVD, I was overjoyed when both Andy Richter Controls the Universe AND Andy Barker, P.I. were released in complete series sets late last year!  (Click here to read my recent review of the DVD set of Andy Richter Controls the Universe.)

Andy Barker, played by Mr. Richter, is a mild-mannered accountant who has just opened up his own office on the second floor of a small mid-western strip-mall.  What Andy doesn’t realize is that the previous tenant of that office space was a private eye.  When a mysterious damsel arrives at his office door, seeking help finding her husband (she thinks the office still belongs to that of an investigator), Andy finds himself drawn into the world of crime.  No one is more surprised than he to discover that he actually enjoys working as a private eye, and that he’s pretty good at it as well!  Thus begins his career as the world’s first accountant/P.I.

I found Andy Richter to be just as engaging and entertaining a series lead here as he was in Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  Andy Barker is far less zany than the character of Andy Richter was — while much of the comedy in Andy Richter Controls the Universe was mined from the crazy imagination of the character Andy Richter, the joke in Andy Barker, P.I. is just how honestly wholesome and white-bread Andy Barker is.  This could be a really boring character, but the actor Andy (Richter) imbues the character Andy (Barker) with an enormous amount of heart and likability.  Plus, Mr. Richter has just enough of a gleam in his eye that we can tell that his Andy Barker isn’t just an average boring accountant (no offense to any accountants out there!) — something that is highlighted by just how much fun Andy Barker is clearly having when he dips his toes into the world of criminal investigations.

Andy Barker, P.I. has just as wonderful an ensemble of actors as did Andy Richter Controls the Universe.  If anything, this show displays an even greater assemblage of talents!  The late, great Harve Presnell played Lew Staziak, the private eye into whose office Andy has moved.  In the pilot, I thought this character was a one-off portrayal (as Andy tracks him down to get some help on his first “case”).  But I was pleasantly surprised that Lew was a regular on the show.  The tough, gruff, fast-talking Lew is basically a creature of the 1950’s transplanted into 2007, and watching him interact with the decidedly neither-tough-nor-gruff Andy and his friends is a riot.  Lew has some uproariously nasty and dirty lines of dialogue (quite a few of which I was very surprised to hear spoken in a network program!) that were a highlight of the show for me.

On his first day in his new office, Andy quickly befriends Simon, the manager of the local video store.  Simon is played by Tony Hale, and while at first it’s a bit tough to shake Mr. Hale’s beloved performance as Buster on Arrested Development, I found that passed quickly.  By the time we see Simon rubbing a black-and-white cookie lasciviously in an attempt to flirt with Andy’s new African American secretary, Buster is long forgotten.  Andy also bonds with the owner of the local Middle Eastern restaurant, Wally (Marshall Manesh).  In a post 9/11 world, Wally is obsessed with letting everyone know of his patriotism.  (The set-design of his store, filled with red, white and blue everywhere, as well as busts of American presidents, is genius.)  But what I really loved was that his patriotism doesn’t seem to be a sham.  Though we often see him barking at his employees, Wally is portrayed as a fairly jovial fellow who is bothered by little.  Mr. Manesh is absolutely hysterical in the role — the character of Wally is a wonderful creation, and possibly the character I most regret not getting to see develop had the show continued.

The last member of the ensemble is Andy’s deliriously upbeat wife, Jenny (Clea Lewis).  In the DVD set’s special features, the show-runners discuss wanting to avoid having the familiar sitcom character of the shrewish wife who is always criticizing her husband.  Thankfully, they went in exactly the opposite direction with Jenny, who is sweet and extraordinarily supportive of Andy.  But she’s not boring.  Ms. Lewis gives Jenny a twinkle in her eye that allows us to see that she’s just got just as much going on under her seeingly-normal surface as Andy does.  Mr. Richter and Ms. Lewis make a great pair.

Andy Barker, P.I., is a very funny show, though not in a traditional TV set-up/punch-line sort of way.  It’s often more wry than laugh-out-loud funny (though there certainly are plenty of screamingly funny moments).  Much of the show’s humor comes from the increasingly outlandish situations in which Andy and his friends continually find themselves.  The show plays delightfully with the conventions of “noir” private eye adventures, from the episode titles (all of which are twists on the titles of familiar noir films, such as “The Big No Sleep” and “The Lady Varnishes”) to the noir sterotypes who constantly walk through Andy’s door.  I already mentioned the femme fatale who appears in the pilot and sets Andy down this road, but my favorite guest character would have to be Ed Asner who appears in the final episode as the crooked Irish cop who was once Lew Staziak’s partner.  The corrupt cop is a staple of noir stories, but by making this character an octogenarian and casting Ed Asner in the role, that stock character gets turned on its side to hilarious results.

With this set, Shout! Factory continues to prove themselves the finest company producing TV-on-DVD collections working today.  Their collections are always hands-above the competition.  (I’d direct your attention to their collections of Freaks and Geeks, UndeclaredIt’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and Mystery Science Theatre 3000, just for starters!)  I thought the Andy Richter Controls the Universe DVD set was great, but this one has it beat.  There’s a wonderfully comprehensive retrospective feature that looks back at the sadly short run of the series, and terrific commentary tracks on EVERY episode.  All the major players are involved in the special features.  It’s a surprising amount of love for a show that was killed after only six episodes.  Thank you so much to the fine folks at Shout!

It’s an enormous shame to me that audiences did not connect with this show.  There was so much unexplored potential!  After finishing re-watching the six episodes, I felt like the writers and actors had just barely begun to scratch the surface of the premise.  And I so wish I could have gotten to spend more time with the characters!  (Like Andy’s deadpan secretary, played by Nicole Randall Johnson, who only appeared in two of the episodes!)  Andy Barker, P.I. is definitely a bizarre, unusual show.  I guess those qualities which I most appreciate about it are what lead to its quick demise!  Well, the fools at NBC can’t have any impact on my enjoyment of this DVD set.  If you’re looking for something a little weird and definitely unique, this is a show that is definitely worth your time.  At only six episodes, you could watch the whole run of the show in less time than it takes to see most movies!  (Though I recommend spacing it out, to savor the series, as I did.)

“Mother Hubbard!”

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