Monday, March 26, 2007

"I never saw Chinatown. Is that with Jackie Chan?"

I think it says a lot about the shaky state of modern American television (and the pervasiveness of technology) that NBC has already released all six episodes of ANDY BARKER P.I.-- even before they've been officially aired on TV -- on their web site.

For free. Or you can buy 'em for $1.99 a pop on iTunes.

Nothing like a vote of confidence, huh?

Looks like a recent column I did for Mystery Scene entitled "The Private iPod" was only about three minutes ahead of the curve. Not bad for a Luddite like me.

But hey, beyond NBC's release tactics, I like the show. Sure, like almost every other attempt at a private detective show these days, it's got a gimmick. In this case, it's the old "nebbish is mistaken for a private eye and gets thrown into a case where he must prove his mettle" gimmick.

Yeah, it's an old gag, but it comes off as far fresher than it probably has any right to, thanks to an affable cast and some sharp writing.

Andy Richter, Conan O'Brien's old sidekick, is flat-out perfect as an earnest, wide-eyed nice-guy CPA who decides it's time to hang out his own shingle. He rents an office in a Southern California mini-mall (grandiously called "Fair Oaks Plaza"). The problem is that the office's former tenant was Lew Staziak, a crazy old coot of a P.I. who was forced to retire -- rather suddenly -- because of health problems. Andy buys himself plenty of office supplies and sits down at his desk to wait for his first customer.

It doesn't come.

Instead trouble walks in. On high heels, of course.

Through the usual misunderstandings, Andy is mistaken for the former tenant of the office, and hilarity promptly ensues. We've seen this all before -- in everything from Bob Hope's MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE to Jeff Goldblum and Ben Vereen in TV's TENSPEED AND BROWNSHOE -- but the cast is good and the writing (so far) fresh.

The relationship between Andy and Jen, his equally mild-mannered, relentlessy peppy homemaker wife turns out to be not so much sticky sweet and intentionally cloying as genuinely sweet and irony-free -- a rarity in a medium where married couples are almost universally portrayed as bickering stand-up comics, firing non-stop zingers 24/7.

Instead, rhe show dares to be sweet. Charming. Cute, even. Like when Andy and Jen are in bed, each with their own lap top, and text-message each other.

Bit it's not all sweetness and light. There's also a shrewd, subversive wit about it. Not surprising, perhaps, given that Mr. Late Night himself co-created it. O'Brien, of course, cut his teeth writing for The Simpsons, another show that managed to balance a certain domestic sweetness (No! Really!) with some pointed satire.

Adding greatly to the fun are Andy's wacky neighbours in the struggling mall. Simon is the screwy, movie trivia-spouting operator of Video Riot with way too much time on his hands who declares himself Andy's partner for his "detective work." Restaurant owner Wally is a recent immigrant from Afghanistan (he "traveled here in the wheel well of a jumbo jet") who's gone overboard with patriotism "since 9/11." And Jessica is the stone-faced, intimidating black woman who blames Andy for the loss of her last job and declares herself his new secretary -- whether he likes it or not.

I also like the show's pragmatic approach to technology. It's neither overblown nor downplayed. When Andy needs to find out something, he hits Google, and there are plenty of shots of Andy at his computer to reassure us that this is indeed a current show -- not some "brilliant but cancelled" treasure left in the vaults way past its expiration date.

As well, the show just looks good -- it's well-filmed and well-lighted, a nice change from the skinflint production values of crank-em-out reality shows and cut-rate sitcoms we've seen lately.

Sweet, smart, slyly subversive, ANDY BARKER P.I. is everything most sitcoms aren't these days.

Watch it while you can. Anyway you can, be it streaming video or download or even -- GASP! -- on television.

So help me, it may just be the best new private eye show in years. It's certainly the smartest.



Post a Comment

<< Home