Andy Barker, PI

Maybe the third time will be the charm for Andy Richter. It’s his third bite at the network-sitcom cherry since leaving his post as sidekick on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. First there was Andy Richter Controls the Universe, a quirky office comedy that predated The Office by three years. He followed that up with Quintuplets, a non-threatening (and totally forgettable) family sitcom featuring zany hijinx.

If Andy Richter Controls the Universe was too strange for a mainstream audience (he did have multiple conversations with his boss’ ghost, after all), and Quintuplets was too toothless, Andy Barker, P.I. strikes a right balance. And NBC is so insistent that this balance be seen that it has taken an unusual step, making the first six episodes available online before they air on TV.

Don’t be fooled by the show’s title. Andy Barker (Richter) isn’t really a private investigator. He’s an accountant who takes over an office suite once rented by a PI, and falls into solving mysteries that way. Barker is as square as they come: he likes watching Judging Amy and has a pleasant-looking wife (Clea Lewis). But lurking underneath the Everybody Loves Raymond-ish veneer is the oddball idea that the CPA could go toe-to-toe with gangsters and come out on top.

While some shows — say, Veronica Mars — are obviously in love with noir, cleverly updating classic aesthetic elements and character archetypes, Andy Barker is happier subverting them. Think of Andy as a soft-boiled detective. In one scene during the premiere episode, a blond femme fatale slinked into his office, obviously in distress. This is where Richter was supposed to take a hard gulp, mesmerized by her sensuality, and promise to do what he could to help her. Instead, he asked her to put out her cigarette. Some gumshoe. Instead of meeting the bad guys head-on, Barker solves crimes through bureaucracy, looking up tax deductions and business records. In noir, he’d be eaten alive. In the Andy Barker universe, he flies just under the radar and closes the cases in the dorkiest way possible. The humor lies in dropping Barker into this kind of narrative and watching him flail to get his bearings using the only tool he has: sharp accounting acumen.

If Barker is clueless as to the noir conventions, supporting characters practically live by them. “She’s a fake,” said video store manager and friend Simon (Tony Hale, in a pitch-perfect anti-Buster). “It’s right out of Chinatown.” (Barker’s response: “I’ve never seen Chinatown. Is that with Jackie Chan?”) Simon’s predictions based on old detective stories were dead-on, as both villains and best friends followed formula.

It’s not just noir that gets put through the joke ringer. The show also features slapstick and yuk-yuk sitcom humor, which includes plenty of Richter/O’Brien-style gags — the kind that rely on people being mauled by bears. These are interspersed with plenty of beefed-up action, but these scenes mostly verge on parody: think of Simon trying to slide across the hood of a car, Dukes of Hazzard-style, and falling over backwards instead. The only thing that stitches together the mishmash of genres, tones, and styles is Barker, and he does this by being ignorant of how he’s supposed to act in all of them.

RATING 6 / 10