The Complete Series
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
here's a good chance that, growing up, you've fantasized about being a private investigator. Fed by a lifetime of TV, movie, and literary P.I.s, I know I have – and still do. The mind of Andy Barker (Andy Richter), however, has been elsewhere.
Andy's an accountant, and a very good one, but he’s so unaware of the noir mythos that when someone mentions the movie “Chinatown,” he asks, “Is that with Jackie Chan?” Blissfully married to the adoring Jenny Barker (the quirkily deadpan Clea Lewis), he's more than happy taking all his walks on the mild side. Still, when he moves into the strip-mall office that once belonged to the aging and more than slightly crazed retired tough guy private dick Lew Staziak (the late, great Harve Presnell), he finds himself beset with clients who have more need of Jim Rockford or Phillip Marlowe than a Certified Public Accountant. With the questionable help of Staziak and two of his office neighbors – zany video store proprietor Simon (Tony Hale of “Arrested Development”), who provides Andy with movie knowledge and little else, and flag-waving Afghan-American restaurateur Wally (veteran actor Marshall Manesh) – he sets about righting wrongs and fighting bad guys. His only weapons: common sense, high morals, and his vast knowledge of accountancy.
Deeply silly yet knowingly low-key, “Andy Barker, P.I.” – the follow-up to the equally good-but-canceled “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” – was co-created for Richter by his once-and-future TV boss, Conan O'Brien, alongside ex-“Late Night” writer Jonathan Groff. In an earlier life, the pre-fame O'Brien had collaborated with Robert Smigel (“TV Funhouse”) on another silly/deadpan P.I. parody, “Lookwell,” arguably the most highly regarded unaired comedy pilot in TV history. In comparison, the six-episode run of this cartoonish look at an extremely wholesome fictional private detective was a roaring success. Still, it's a crime “Barker” wasn't allowed more of a chance to grow. The show had its share of rough edges – plotting that's a bit too sloppy for the show's internal logic, such as it is, and endings to several episodes that go a step or two beyond the outer edges of quirky – but that roughness was more of a side effect of the show's endearingly shaggy form of comedy. More often, it flirts with a kind of greatness. Certainly, that's true of my favorite episodes.
Co-written by star TV scribe Jane Espenson, “Fairway, My Lovely” brings us the hilarious aftermath of the seemingly not-at-all mysterious heart attack death of a ridiculously obese and unhealthy accounting client (Peter Allen Vogt) who meets his maker while running through a golf course and holding an enormous submarine sandwich. Aside from the skullduggery regarding the client's inexplicable sexual attractiveness to seemingly everyone susceptible, including Jenny Barker and a certain elusive blonde, the episode also features the dead-on work of Nicole Randall Johnson of “Mad TV,” whose two-episode run as Andy's grimfaced not-really-assistant was much too brief.
The show also ended in glorious fashion with “The Lady Varnishes,” which focuses on two of Lew Staziak's past acquaintances, an unjustly imprisoned, wooden-legged femme fatale (a perfectly cast Amy Sedaris) and his evil nemesis and ex-partner Mickey Doyle (an equally well-cast Ed Asner). Sedaris – the star and creator of “Strangers with Candy,” who has an obvious way playing mature women with ridiculously over-developed libidos – makes heavy, would-be seductive use of her artificial leg on poor Andy in a scene which is a masterpiece of good-natured poor taste. And it's just a pleasure to see the two master curmudgeons, Asner and Presnell, working together so beautifully.
On a show like this, it's easy to complain about the unused potential, but there is also an awful lot for which to be grateful. Though he may be a familiar TV face due to his late-night talk show work with Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter is an extremely talented actor and comedy creator who has shown that he more than deserves first banana status. At least he had this chance to prove that his own blend of good nature and go-for-broke/borderline surreal comedy can work on its own. For Harve Presnell, who began his career as an opera singer, became a musical comedy star on stage and screen, and eventually segued into straight dramatic roles in movies like “Fargo,” the show was a chance to prove he also had outlandishly well-honed comedy chops. If the only great moment in “Andy Barker, P.I.” was the ultra-hard-bitten old private eye facing his deepest personal fear – chickens – it would have been worth it. Looking an uncomprehending fowl in the eyes and uttering “Hey, remember me? I'm Lew Stasiak, and I'm all grown up now” with complete conviction and absolute seriousness, we are privileged to see a moment of genius.
Special Features: I was unsure whether this brilliant but often uneven show deserved three and a half or four stars, but it was the extras that made my decision easy. This disc features “Going Where the Numbers Take You,” a very informative and nice look at the making of “Andy Barker, P.I.,” featuring appearances by most of the cast, series director Jacob Ensler, and creator Conan O'Brien. There's also a gag reel, which, unusually for a comedy show especially, is actually funny. But the real glory for “Andy Barker, P.I.” fans are the six episode commentaries with key cast members and creatives, including O'Brien discussing his role in the pilot episode. The affection and respect these people all have for this show – which was, by all usual TV standards, not a success – is kind of moving. It's only a shame that Harve Presnell was apparently unable to participate. (He died of pancreatic cancer in June of this year.) It would have been great to hear his take on working with Ed Asner, with whom it appears he may have locked horns politically at some earlier point. Or, more importantly, he could answer this question: Just what was he thinking about when he was facing down that chicken?