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Canned TV Show #23: Andy Barker, P.I.

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

Well hello there.

I’m not gonna dwell on the fact that it’s been a long time since I’ve been on here, because if you’re at all a fan of these, you’ve probably realized that already.  Not that I have much excuse; it was just something that got put on the back burner for a long time.  In fact, I actually considered ceasing altogether, particularly when the A.V. Club, the site whose “My Year of Flops” columns served as the inspiration for my own blog, started up a new column specifically examining one-season series.  Despite the fact that, yeah, I’ve been doing it a while, their far superior readership and credibility made this seem more like an amateur project than ever.  But then I decided, you know what?  There’s room enough for both of us on this rock to cover canceled TV shows, right?  Besides, where will people go to read about all the two season series that are out there?  I’m still covering those.

Andy Barker cast

But not today.  Today, our show sadly only lasted six episodes.  The show is of course Andy Barker, P.I., the unfortunately short-lived vehicle for funnyman and beloved Conan O’Brien sideman Andy Richter, co-created by O’Brien and Jonathan Groff (not the guy from Glee, at least I don’t think so.  That would be surprising!).  Apparently, with three canceled series to his name, Andy Richter is a hard sell for the American public to accept as a leading man, which is a real shame, because he deserves a vehicle for his particular brand of charm.  I had originally planned to do a whole sequence of posts about Richter’s past flops, but I’ve had a hard time locating Andy Richter Controls the Universe in any free capacity.  I haven’t much looked into his other show, Quintuplets, but maybe I will one of these days.

Barker follows Richter as the titular character, a milquetoast accountant who goes into business for himself, renting an office in a shopping plaza populated with colorful characters like Simon (the great Tony Hale), owner of a video store (so 2007!), and Wally (Marshall Manesh, one of those actors who gets cast as all the ethnic types, regardless of whether he is actually from the same country or even general region as his character, such as his recurring role as the cab driver Ranjit on How I Met Your Mother), an Afghani immigrant who runs a restaurant and “went a little overboard with the patriotic stuff after 9/11.”  Business isn’t really happening for Andy, until a mysterious Russian woman strolls in, hands him $4,000, and asks him to find her husband.  See, Andy’s office was previously occupied by private investigator Lew Staziak (the great Harve Presnell, from Fargo), and with rent due and an interest in the truth, Andy decides to take the case.  Turns out, he’s surprisingly good at the whole private investigator thing, and decides to balance his accounting career with his burgeoning one in this very different field.  With Simon as his bumbling sidekick and assists from Wally, Lew, and his wife (who starts out opposing his new career, but to the show’s credit, it ditches that rather tiring aspect quickly and just gets her in on the fun), Andy solves a new case each week, and of course can’t get a moment’s peace.

The pilot takes Andy from in over his head to competent P.I. maybe a little too quickly, but such is the requirement of a pilot: to get us into the main action of the show, especially in a case-a-week kind of format like this.  Andy seems to take the job for a number of reasons.  One, he needs the money, since things at his office aren’t exactly going great; two, he seems to enjoy the excitement of it to an extent–not that his life is crappy, just kind of boring and predictable; three, he just really seems to have a hard time saying no.  Other characters push him into service more often than he pushes himself.  Whether it’s Simon’s enthusiasm, Lew’s hard-headedness, or even his wife’s gentle nudging, Andy’s just too nice of a guy to not help people out.  Richter plays him pretty perfectly, almost like a husband out of a 50s movie. but with a more nerdy feel.  He can’t seem to bring himself to swear, and is certainly nowhere near as grizzled as other P.I.s in pop culture.  In the pilot, he hadn’t even seen Chinatown!  It’s a strange thing to build a show around a sort of passive character, but it works in this case because everything around him is so wacky.  The show takes place in one of those sitcom universes where even though people have businesses to run, they never seem to actually have to go to work, and instead can hang out and leave at a moment’s notice.  Seriously, does Simon have any other employees?  I don’t think so.  And since he’s gone so much, how does he stay in business?  I know video stores weren’t totally obsolete by 2007, but they were on their way.  Even if it seems a little bit of a stretch, you have to just accept it as a part of this show’s weird universe and go with it.

The best episodes of the show are ones that crank up the silliness and play like well-crafted farcical nuggets.  A particular standout for me is “Three Days of the Chicken,”  in which Andy and company try to figure out why Wally’s chicken supplier keeps giving him sub-par chicken, and get in way deeper than they bargained for.  The idea of a chicken-company mafia is funny enough on its own, but the show throws in a handful of other fun bits.  For one, Lew is deathly afraid of chickens, though he’d never admit it.  Presnell is always very funny as the aging Sam Spade type whose attitude and outlook hasn’t seemed to have changed since the 1950s.  But here, he gets to show a slightly different side, as his hyper-macho act crumbles in the face of his feathered nemesis.  The show never reveals why he is so afraid of them, only hints at some past trauma when Lew points a gun at one and says “Remember me?  I’m Lew Staziak, and I’m all grown up now.” Luckily, Andy pulls him away, pushing the chicken into an open door, saying “You’ll be safe here.”  As the doors close, the words “Slaughter Room 2” can be read.  That’s a well-crafted bit.  And the show has quite a few of those.  While not all the episodes are quite as finely tuned, there are more hits than misses, which is good, since there’s only six anyway.  Other highlights include “Fairway, My Lovely,” where Andy investigates the death of a very obese client, and continues to be baffled by how many people, including his wife, find the man irresistibly sexy.  Also the final episode, “The Lady Varnishes,” which features an appearance by the great Ed Asner as Lew’s crooked ex-partner.  That episode explores a bit more of Lew’s backstory, and gives him a nice showcase.  Basically, I would watch a whole spinoff of Lew Staziak, geriatric P.I.  That would be quite humorous.  I  may giggle or even guffaw at such a premise.  Overall, while it’s not the most innovative or spectacular TV comedy, there are enough funny bits to make it a worthwhile way to spend a few hours.

So what happened?  Hard to tell, most likely just low ratings.  Apparently America has a hard time finding it in their hearts to accept Richter as a leading man, which is a shame, because the dude is funny in a low-key, quiet kinda way.  Maybe someday he’ll get the sort of headlining gig that he can hold onto.

So, should it be back on the air? I’m gonna say sure, with the caveat that I don’t think it had a lot of time in it from the get-go.  The formula may have gotten a little tiring after too long, but who knows whether they would’ve switched it up over time?  I’d say maybe a couple seasons is the perfect length for a show like this; enough to make it a cult hit, but short enough that it wouldn’t get old.  If you want to watch it, it’s all on Hulu right now, so it’s easy enough to find (though you need a Hulu Plus account).  Put it on next time you’re home sick or stuck in by the sub-arctic temperatures (if you’re here in the midwest) and laugh for a couple hours!

Hopefully I’ll be able to do these more often, but who’s to say?  I also hope if I have any readers left, they haven’t abandoned me forever.  Also, I started another blog recently, unrelated to this one, but if you like what I do here and want to read a similar thing but about books, then hop on over to http://conorhastoomanybooks.wordpress.com/!  Catch ya next time.

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