Andy Barker, P.I.: “The Big No Sleep”, and “The Lady Varnishes”

Here at the end of my discussions of Andy Barker I think I may have figured out why I like this show so much, warts and all (and there were warts aplenty this week).  I think I enjoy it as much as I do at least in part because I feel a certain connection to the show, a buried but deep similarity between its personality and my own.  In short, I like it because it is much more clever than it is funny.  If that seems like an odd thing to say in praise of a show, let me explain.  I have always (I fear) been much more clever than I have been funny.  Puns are my stock and trade, humor wise, and while people will readily acknowledge that a pun does something technically accomplished to the English language, they rarely give deep belly laughs in response.  From my students I get the line “I see what you did there” much more than I would like to admit.  Andy Barker hits pretty consistently at that level.  As allusions to noir films roar by and quirky little character elements abound, I find myself thinking I see what you did there, Andy Barker.  Well played.  But, with the exception of almost anything that comes out of Lew’s mouth, I rarely find something on the show that makes me guffaw.

Melancholy thoughts for what will be my last ever recap/review of this show.  It’s hard to know that something you appreciate will never extend beyond the briefest of runs, and while Andy Barker is no Arrested Development or even Better Off Ted, I will miss its unique take on the detective sitcom.  It must be said, though, that Andy Barker’s end would have made T.S. Eliot proud: the show definitely went out, not with a bang, but a whimper.  The last episode in particular, “The Lady Varnishes”, shows most of the same problems as last week’s episodes and is essentially devoid of laughs (though I smiled several times, I did not laugh once).

But let’s not be too negative in this space.  Andy was a show still finding its voice when it was cancelled, and I feel confident that, given time, it would have settled into a groove and been a more fully satisfying show.  I say that partly because of the promise it showed in its first two episodes and its superb cast, but also partly because of the involvement of Conan O’Brien (self explanatory) and Jane Espenson (who cut her teeth on Buffy).  For now I want to focus on the positives.  First and foremost, from beginning to end, the show is always fun to watch.  You get the sense that everyone involved liked the environment and the show itself.  Even when laughs are less than abundant the show keeps you smiling and enjoying yourself.

Tonight’s episodes highlight another promising aspect of the show – its firm grasp on villain characterization.  The villains in both episodes walk the line between amusing and bizarre.  In “The Big No Sleep” the baddie ends up desperately wanting Andy to inquire after the dirty details of the crime and seems hurt when Andy has no interest in them.  And Mickey Doyle, Lew’s corrupt ex-partner, gives “The Lady Varnishes” a jolt of energy which carries it through its sometimes slow twenty minutes.  Doyle works so well because he contrasts with the tall, wiry Lew: short and stout, he provides a nice counterpoint.  His stature also makes it hilarious every time he beats Andy up.

“The Big No Sleep” also pulls off an impressive feat, containing as it does genuine A and B plots.  The other episodes of the show essentially focus around a single mystery, with some domestic/hang out scenes thrown in to flesh out the running time.  “No Sleep” though weaves together two distinct whodunits, even dovetailing them at the end.  In the main plot, Andy investigates a supposedly sick woman who may be cheating on her husband; in the second, he tries to track down his infant daughter’s comfort object, a stuffed elephant.  The way the two plots come together seems a tiny bit forced, but it also presents a paramount example of Andy Barker’s M.O., clashing together Andy’s on the edge exploits as an investigator and his tame, by the book home life.  Considering how unbalanced some of the episodes have felt even with a single mystery, I am impressed at how well the show juggled its two plots in this episode.  The second plot also contained my favorite moment of either episode (and possibly the whole series), when Lew wants to go good cop/bad cop on a little kid who may have stolen the elephant.  He proceeds to berate the kid, threatening to kick his ass, then, in a pitch perfect moment from Harve Presnell, deadpans over to Andy to “give him the bad cop”.

More than anything else about the show, I will miss the cast.  Tony Hale and Marshall Manesh, though somewhat underused, are both comic gold when unleashed.  Andy Richter anchors the show in bemused believability, and Clea Lewis grounds the show in Andy’s vanilla domesticity.  The last word has to go to Harve Presnell, though, who steals every scene he is in and attacks his role like a meaty chicken wing.  There is something zesty about an old man with no inhibitions simply living life as he pleases, and Presnell conveys this wild abandonment with aplomb.  Lew Stasiak may be a man out of time and place, but he retains his high opinion of himself.  In the end, he is Andy Barker’s biggest, funniest fish out of water.

Funny Stuff

Two Lew quotes to close us out – what else?  Both come from “The Big No Sleep”.

On potential elephant thieves – “Blonde one did it.  He’s probably a Samoan.  Those peach eating bastards’ll steal anything that ain’t stuffed down your pants.”

To Andy – “No offense to your wife but it’s a wonder that oven jockey ever opened her pair of honeysticks for you.”

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