This week on the sensational comedy Andy Barker P.I. (NBC, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.), our hero—played by Andy Richter with deadpan perfection—faces off a murderous chicken cartel. Andy’s a happy square forever getting in over his round head. An accountant by training and temperament and now a shamus by utter happenstance, he keeps a second-story office at a tidy Southern California strip mall, which is where the poultry trouble begins, with his neighbor Wally. He’s the owner of a kebab joint, a native Afghan so eager to demonstrate his loyalty to America that even his store’s surveillance cameras have received a patriotic makeover (a bust of Lincoln watches the register while a jaunty Nixon eyes the parking lot).
Wally’s chicken is lately tasting rough: His purveyor has been charging exorbitant prices, delivering little but knuckles, and threatening to torch the place if Wally decides to change course. Andy obligingly looks into the matter, guided and misguided, as always, by his sidekick Simon and his mentor Lew Staziak. Tony Hale brings his Arrested Development idiocy to complex new depths as the sidekick, a man-boy video-store owner and struggling Lothario. The imposing Harve Presnell plays Lew, a geriatric detective who was the previous tenant in Andy’s office. Lew gruffly warns that these chicken people constitute a major crime organization with its fingers in many pies: “Drugs, cement, wigs!”
Each of the supporting players is macho in a berserk way (Simon to a female customer: “Hey, Sunshine! Ya lookin’ to buy or rent?”) that throws light on Andy’s prudence and prudery and ultra-mild manners. This is a man who makes Bob Newhart seems both transgressive and steroidal. The producers—who include the show’s creators Conan O’Brien and Jonathan Groff—do an especially swell job of bringing Andy’s cautiousness to the fore in car chases. In the pilot, pursued by Russian mobsters, he narrowed his eyes and daringly pushed his Saturn up to 45 mph. This week, he worriedly says to Simon that he can’t shake the Cadillac on his tail: “I don’t think I can lose ‘em!” Retorts Simon: “Because you keep signaling!”
We have here a detective who, though more “neat, clean, shaved, and sober” than Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, goes chugging, paunch first, through a world that evokes Robert Altman’s adaptation of The Long Goodbye, that floaty anti-noir. Or call him a clean-cut Jeff Lebowski or a novice Jake Gittes. Not that Andy would know who Gittes is. “I never saw Chinatown,” he once tells Simon. “Is that with Jackie Chan?” Andy Barker P.I. jumps and slides and skids around in a referential ecstasy—with blaring suspense-film horns from the ‘40s, Simon’s lunatic film-buff hunches about means and motives, more sly cinematic quotes than I can digest—which makes it all the sweeter that Andy’s taste in pop is utterly mundane. He and his adoring cupcake of a wife enjoy snuggling in to watch Judging Amy on TiVo. When she calls his cell phone, it plays “Footloose.” The disconnect heightens the Alice in Wonderland aspect that makes the show work—the pretty sight gags and gorgeous Venetian-blind shadows, the conceptual air and the quick-and-dirty cloaca jokes—they all add up to a chipper sketch of an abnormal world.
It’s rather amazing that a sitcom this odd has found its way onto prime-time network television. (Arrested Development, for all its delightful bizarreness, was friskier and more familiar—more user-friendly.) Please wish it only the best as it completes its six-episode run and heads off to cult status on DVD. But, also, take a moment to wonder: Is this what we can expect when O’Brien takes over The Tonight Show in 2009? The last time I caught his show, New York City had been seized by a vicious cold snap, and Late Night used the opportunity to present a sketch involving a mock Kermit the Frog, who vomited rivers of hot cocoa and was soon joined by an ursine self-abuser well-known to the Conan faithful, the Masturbating Bear. Can such aggressive nonsense play at 11:30? Does Andy Barker P.I. point the way to a happy compromise? The show’s an exotically absurd creature, but it derives, from its hero, a strong middle-American backbone.