Sunday, April 15, 2007

TV: Wasted away in second banana-ville

Andy Richter Controls The Universe. Oh, if only that were true.

Richter found fame on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. As more than a modern day Ed McMahon, Richter was featured in skits throughout his run. Our personal favorite was when they took Barbara Walters' interview with Monica Lewinsky and spliced Richeter into it answering Walters' question. The comic high is Richter quoting from Jewel's "Hands" and the reaction shot of Walters. Richter at the top of his game is a subversion played straight.

Leaving Late Night, he soon showed up starring in the short-lived Andy Richter Controls The Universe -- the less said, the better. Next up came Quintuplets which only made things worse. Richter trapped in a family sitcom playing the Alan Thicke role? Where was the subversion in that?

His most promising TV moment in recent time was his portrayal of "Sad Dad" on The New Adventures of Old Christine. NBC recently started airing (and cancelled last Monday) Andy Barker, P.I. The episodes are available (for now) online. There is some talk of running them again this summer. If that happens, the show could get the kind of lift that brought Filthy Rich (briefly) back from the dead. But the talk of the re-running them isn't that strong.

What did you see or what did you miss?

Andy Barker, P.I. had a lot going for it and came the closest to what makes Richter funny. The premise was he is an accountant who is mistaken, in his new office, for a private detective. Feeling that he has to help the woman in need, he investigates and is actually good at it. That's how he becomes Andy Barker, P.I.

The show? Clea Lewis (Audrey from Ellen) was very funny as Barker's wife Jenny. But her bookend appearances, early on and at the end, seemed a wee bit too much Mrs. Kotter. The show appeared to be attempting a comic spoof of the NBC Sunday Night Mysteries but with Jenny bookended and no Mildred around, it came off more like McLoud and less like McMillian & Wife.

The most obvious problems? Harve Presnell (playing Lew), Marshall Manesh (as Wally) and Tony Hale (as Simon). Are they bad actors? No. Did they give bad performances? No. So what's the problem? The three were the sidekicks. One would think that Richter, a former sidekick, would grasp that you need only one sidekick. Watching the three of them (Manesh is Iranian-American, the other two are White) chase down the clues, you're always aware that each scene was too crowded and way too male.

There was another female in the cast, Nicole Randall Johnson (as Nicole) who became (by her own decision), Richter's assistant after she was fired because he stole information from her old job. You might assume that, as the assistant to the private detective, Nicole would be a character in every episode. Assuming that would make you wrong. Despite adding a lift to the proceedings every time she was onscreen, Randall Johnson was rarely onscreen.

Randall Johnson is African-American (and on Mad TV) so including her as regular means there were two women in the cast, two non-White characters and three White males. Better than most of the odds on TV if still not reflective of society at large.

The biggest 'element' that didn't work was Lew. A retired P.I. Richter looks up to? He's already coming off like a boy chasing down adventures, does he also need a Daddy figure on top of it? Someone thought so and they were wrong. To have a grown man play like a little boy, the only reason to bring in a Daddy figure is if you're making one of those 'speciality videos' not when you're trying to create a sitcom with mass appeal.

The biggest shock was the lack of women. Lewis and Randall Johnson received very little air time. Richter's office was in a strip mall where all the businesses were, apparently, run by men since that's what his posse was made up of. Where's the subversion in that?

Where Richter works best is instances that resemble life but give it a twist. The show seemed to exist in TV Land: 1971. Not a lot to relate to and not a lot for Richter to cut loose on. When Richter's reduced to Dennis the Menace (and that's what having the Daddy figure did), it's not going to make for strong TV.

Only one episode seemed less concerned with sending up the past and more concerned, throughout, with creating a show that lived up to the subversive quality -- the second episode, "Fairway, My Lovely." In this episode, a friend's grossly overweight husband (whom Richter golfed with) had died. Was it murder? In the course of the investigation, Richter is threatened by a golf teacher, learns the dead man had a mistress, learns his own wife (Lewis) thought the obese man was sexy, and learns that the second affair the dead man was having was with the young male caddy. (A tattoo just above the butt exposes the latter.) That and everything else in the script played on the subversive comedy that is Richter's stomping ground. (For the record, learning that a young, blond male was having an affair with the dead man did not lead to homophobic jokes, more of an exasperated, "You too!")

More episodes like that and Richter would have a hit show. As it was, he had his strongest sitcom with Andy Barker, P.I. Conan O'Brien was the behind the scenes force. Due to his pull at NBC (he'll be replacing Jay Leno), O'Brien can get another Richter sitcom on air. If he decides to, everyone involved needs to grasp (a) the subversive nature of Richeter's humor, (b) as with John Belushi, Daddy figures really aren't needed for Richter, and (c) the year is 2007.

With the character of Nicole disappearing after "Fairway, My Lovely" and the character of Jenny mainly shown in bed, bookending episodes, what did they think they had on their hands? It was Jerry Lewis, not O'Brien, who made the boneheaded, sexist remark that women weren't funny. But Andy Barker, P.I. played out like O'Brien had said it. As Andy, his two buddies and his Daddy figure went from here to there and back again, repeatedly, throughout each episode, you noticed that women weren't offered a place at the table. Don't think that didn't register with viewers.

What registered behind the camera? With his three male sidekicks, as each episode unfolded, it became obvious that Wally was getting the loud bits Richter should have been given and that Simon's dialogue was funnier than the star's. Again, three sidekickes is two too many and when you don't grasp that, and have writers trying to create moments for all, the star ends up sidelined.

The pilot and the second episode remain the best work Andy Richter's done in a show of his own. That made it all the more depressing to watch it descend, episode after episode. As it is, his finest primetime TV acting was done on The New Old Christine. That might be because he was working off Julia Louis-Dreyfus or it might be because it took place in "modern times." It might be a combination. But when you throw him back to 1971, surrounded by men, he's not going to be as funny. He wouldn't have been funny in 1971. He would have been the character the others rolled their eyes about. The times have changed and one of the saddest things about Andy Barker, P.I. was the possibility that maybe the producers weren't sending up an earlier era but longing for it.
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