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It adds up to a good fit

Andy Richter plays a CPA who finds he has a knack for sleuthing in the appealing comedy `Andy Barker, P.I.'

March 14, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Andy Richter is back again, in a quietly delightful new series called "Andy Barker, P.I.," co-created by his old boss (or however you want to relationally describe the person in a talk-show-hosting arrangement who isn't the sidekick), Conan O'Brien. (Jonathan Groff is O'Brien's co-creator.) I have not been the most dedicated tracker of Richter's career, but I have felt a proprietary affection toward him ever since I got a glimpse of him in the hallway outside a friend's apartment in Greenwich Village, and am always glad to see him again.

Richter is amazingly resilient, work-wise, for a man who has yet to really establish himself as one thing or another. He continues to pop up here and there, now and again -- eponymously in the series "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," recurringly in "The New Adventures of Old Christine," almost anonymously in the movie "Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby" -- and yet it always feels like something of a surprise. I mean no offense when I say that I think this might be connected in some way with the fact that he is, physically, on the soft side -- there is something actually indistinct about him.

In any case, that may not be the worst quality in an actor, and he is here once more, this time as an accountant who opens his own office in a space formerly occupied by a private eye, and who -- in the sort of moment that used to kick-start Hitchcock films -- is mistaken for the shamus. He is set down in the middle of a mystery and, as is often the case in such stories, finds he has a knack (not indistinct from that qualities that make him a good accountant) for getting to the bottom of things. He also is a demon multi-tasker, picking up a client for a tax meeting in the middle of a car chase.

"Andy Barker, P.I." will not change the face of comedy. Indeed, the face it wears is an old one and somehow one feels grateful for that. The envelope does not always need to be pushed; let it be envelope-sized for change. The series recalled to me "Get Smart," though it is more grounded than that, and other detective and spy spoofs of my youth. It has a kindliness I find appealing: It's funny, but it doesn't go for big laughs so much as a mood of whimsical parody. And as in "Get Smart," or "Monk" for that matter, you're able to invest both in the character and in the mysteries, however silly they are. You want things to go well for Andy both at home and work.

The usual thing would have been to make Barker an unsatisfied dreamer, to whom his detective adventure brings his life the romance it was missing. But he's not unhappy; apart from the fact that his business is slow getting off the mark, there is no hole in his life to fill. He takes to sleuthing because he's the sort of person who can't not finish a job he's started, and because he finds he's good at it. And though it may not have been intended as such, there was something brilliant about making him a CPA -- a person with confident knowledge about things most of us dimly understand and, in some cases, actively fear: numbers, forms, taxes, money. His day job makes him oddly more romantic than less.

Clea Lewis, who was squeaky Audrey back on "Ellen," plays Andy's wife. Lewis has grown up some -- well, not "up," but older -- and is a woman now, no longer a girl. Though she still squeaks a little. Lewis, whose natural state is a kind of comic melodrama, has a wonderful way with pulpy overripe or pulpy dialogue -- she was made to speak lines that were not made to be spoken, as it were -- and I would not be surprised to learn that the writers were purposely playing to that strength. Harve Presnell ("Fargo," and a production of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" I saw probably around the same time I was watching "Get Smart") plays the detective whose office Andy inhabits, and who starts hanging around, as do his mall neighbors Tony Hale (washed up whole from the scuttled "Arrested Development"), who runs the video store, and Marshall Manesh, proprietor of a kebab house tricked out in post-9/11 prophylactic Americana. Nicole Randall Johnson plays Andy's minimally motivated, unasked for assistant.

This motley crew is more than a little reminiscent of the one surrounding Donal Logue on "Knights of Prosperity," another essentially sweet, one-camera comedy about a person trying to be his own boss and getting into dangerous scrapes. Like that show, recently excised from the ABC schedule, this one makes no particular claim on reality -- or just enough to keep it from floating clean away.



`Andy Barker, P.I.'

Where: NBC

When: 9:30 to 10 Thursday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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