Andy Barker, P.I.



9:30-10 p.m., Thursday, March 15

After Andy Richter quit serving as sidekick on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," he starred in a Fox sitcom, "Andy Richter Controls the Universe." It was very funny, but it didn't last long. Then he did another Fox sitcom, "Quintuplets." It wasn't very funny, and it didn't last long either. With "Andy Barker, P.I." Richter goes back to making funny sitcoms that won't last long.

That might be too harsh an assessment. This isn't a tough show to get, after all, and Richter has a warm and goofy appeal. At the same time, though, the show has a complex rhythm involving characters, satire and sight gags. You can watch "Barker" again and find things you missed the first time. That should be a good thing, but comedies that depart too much from mainstream expectations (think "Arrested Development" or "Watching Ellie" or dozens of others) tend to develop a core following that, though loyal, is rarely big enough to sustain them.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Richter, as an accountant who accidentally becomes a detective, combines a silly charm with clever instincts. That, coupled with the show being scheduled on NBC's Thursday night comedy block, could bring in the large audience it deserves. Then again, NBC could find itself in the unenviable position of having to choose between this series and the sharper, more well-defined "30 Rock" when fall schedules are announced in a couple of months.

In the premiere of the series, a creation of O'Brien and former "Late Night" head writer Jonathan Groff, a confident Barker opens an accounting office in a strip mall. His only client, though, is a sexy Russian woman who mistakes Barker for the previous occupant, a private detective. She hires him to locate her husband, who is missing and presumed dead.

In this and other cases, Barker has the dubious benefit of assistance from overeager Simon (Tony Hale), who runs the video store in the strip mall; Wally (Marshall Manesh), the Afghan owner of a kabob restaurant; and Lew Staziak (Harve Presnell), the grizzled and retired investigator for whom Barker was mistaken. Although they are, quite literally, the gang that can't shoot straight, they somehow manage to solve every case. Barker's blindly supportive wife (Clea Lewis) isn't given much to do, but the character is too good to sit on the sidelines for long.

"Barker" is played for laughs, as it should be, so the details of the cases aren't important or, sometimes, even logical. At times, though, there is so little time for a story to develop that you wonder if this series might have turned out better as a full hour.

Jason Ensler, who directed the pilot, knows where to put the camera for maximum laughs. Richter is well-suited for the role of the unprepared but resourceful Barker. Where else are you going to see a detective with enough composure to offer solid investment advice in the midst of a car chase?

NBC Universal Television Studio and Conaco
Executive producers: Conan O'Brien, David Kissinger, Jonathan Groff, Jeff Ross
Co-executive producers: Peter Schindler, Chuck Tatham
Consulting producers: Josh Bycel, Jane Espenson, Alex Herschlag, Gail Lerner, Gregg Mettler, Jon Pollack
Producer: Andy Richter
Director: Jason Ensler
Writers: Conan O'Brien, Jonathan Groff, Jon Ross
Director of photography: Byron Shah
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Casting: Brett Greenstein, Collin Daniel
Andy Barker: Andy Richter
Simon: Tony Hale
Wally: Marshall Manesh
Jenny Barker: Clea Lewis
Lew Staziak: Harve Presnell