Friday, June 3, 2011

'Andy Barker, P.I.' was a cute detective comedy

Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series (2007)
Starring: Andy Richter, Tony Hale, Harve Presnell, Clea Lewis, and Marshall Manesh
Director: Jason Ensler
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

In the Spring of 2007, NBC aired six episodes of a Conan O'Brien created and produced half-hour comedy series centered around an accountant who starts working as a detective on the side when people come to his office in search of its former occupant, a hardboiled detective who retired.

Starring Andy Richter as Andy Barker, the show's comedy was generated to a large extent by the fact that Andy was a perfectly typical small business owner--with a lovely wife, two kids, and a house in the suburbs--who enjoyed working in the accounting profession. He only reluctantly gets involved in detective work, and not because he is interested in excitement or danger, but because he is interested in helping people. Unlike most lead characters in detective shows, Andy Barker's main goal is not to be a detective or a crime fighter or even famous. He's happy being a anonymous but solidly reliable accountant. As he says in one episode, "I've never filed a tax return late in my life, and I'm not going to start now!"

Much of the show's humor grows out of the contrast between the straighter-than-straight arrow Andy, the criminal element he comes in contact with, and the crazy people he meets in the course of his detective work and by just renting an office in the strip mall. The character of Andy's wife, played by a perfectly cast Clea Lewis, also brings a few laughs as she is down-to-earth enough to be a believable companion for Andy but just odd enough to be a source of humor.

Each episode of the short-lived series sees Andy dragged into a storyline that could (and probably has) been featured in any straight detective show you care to mention. Crooked cops, Russian gangsters, identity thieves, racketeers... Andy squares off against all of these, baffling and ultimately defeating them with a lot of common decency and a little dash of common sense.

The visual style of the episodes feels like the detective shows of the 1980s and 1990s, although the characters and stories are completely grounded in today. There are also numerous subtle references to classic mystery films, with Hitchcock fans in particularly finding touches to giggle at. Not so subtle mystery spoofs are also present in the form of aforementioned Lew Staziak, who is an aging tough guy private eye ripped from the pages of a dimestore novel with more than a slight touch of senile dementia.

The characters that made "Andy Barker, P.I." so much fun (left to right):
Simon (Tony Hale), Wally (Marshall Manesh), Andy & Jenny Barker
(Andy Richter and Clea Lewis), and Lew Staziak, (Harv Presnell).

The episodes break down like this:

Episode One: Andy Barker, P.I.
Andy opens his own accounting firm, taking offices on the second floor of a suburban strip mall. A woman comes to his door and, mistaking him for the former tenant, private detective Lew Staziak, begs him to find her missing husband. Andy discovers that the same sort of research talents and attention to detail that let him solve even the most baffling accounting puzzles lend themselves just as well to solving mysteries. Unfortunately, the woman who hired him was not really the man's wife, and Andy ends up leading violent criminals to the hiding place of an anti-crime crusading politician.

Episode Two: Fairway, My Lovely
When one of Andy's accounting clients drops dead on the golf course, he and the coroner write it off as natural causes, because this was a guy who liked to think of himself as "44% NOT body fat" and who put the morbid in morbidly obese. When the decedent's wife pleads Andy to look into the case, because she is certain he was murdered, Andy is confronted with two puzzles: Who killed him, and why the heck did every woman find him so attractive (including Andy's own wife). [This is arguably the funniest episode in the bunch. The storyline is also a clever mystery spoof with an ending that I'm sure you won't see coming.]

Episode Three: Three Days of the Chicken
Wally, the America-loving Afghani owner of the fast food restaurant downstairs from Andy's office, is threatened by an unscrupulous chicken distribution cartel that is forcing him to buy substandard meat. Against the advice of Lew Staziak, Andy decides to intervene... and finds himself confronted with some really fowl dealings by corrupt and deadly characters.

Episode Four: Dial M for Laptop
When Lew Staziak decides to get back into the P.I. business as Andy's partner, he forgets to tell Andy. As a result, a group of identity thieves Lew was trying to entrap steal Andy's laptop instead of the dummy laptop Andy was to give them. In less than 24 hours, Andy must locate the identity thieves not only to save Lew's client, but to also preserve his own reputation and self-respect; his father-in-law's tax return was on that laptop, unfiled, and if Andy can't retrieve he'll miss the IRS filing deadline!

Episode Five: The Big No Sleep
When Andy's baby girl loses her favorite stuffed toy, Snowball, at a charity benefit, she keeps Andy and his wife up all night crying. His search for the toy becomes complicated when he discovers that the sick woman for whom the benefit was being held was faking her illness, and that her doctor may be in on the fraud. And that doesn't even take into account the Albanian gangsters.

Episode Six: The Lady Varnishes
When Andy is called upon to clear an old girlfriend of Lew Staziak of a 50 year-old murder, the true murderer--Lew's old partner--sets out to stop him from succeeding. [Ed Asner guest-stars in this episode, presenting a hilarious character who, like Lew, seems like he just warped in from from a 1947 crime movie... and who is every bit as crazy as Lew. But more evil. James Hong and Amy Sedaris also appear in hilarious supporting roles.]

The stars and creators of "Andy Barker, P.I" had deep affection for the show, and they are of one mind that it had the potential to be a long-lived series. I'm not sure; as good as these six episodes are, I think the inherent shallowness in the half-hour format would have quickly forced the show into territory that was either repetitive or so far fetched and screwball that the charm of these first six episodes would have evaporated. However, we will never know. Although the show was moderately popular, NBC didn't think the ratings warranted its continuation.

The entire series has been released on DVD by Shout Factory. The collection features some very interesting interviews with the writers, producers, stars, and director of the series, as well as some highly informative and entertaining commentary on the episodes from the same. They really are a cut above the usual standards on these collections, and they add much value to this already worth-owning set.

You can also watch the series for free at, by clicking here.

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