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REVIEW

The ides of March certainly bode well for prime-time

comedy. Here comes "Andy Barker, P.I.," a spoof-com that, unlike so many of

today's single-camera half-hours, doesn't try to play smarter than the room,

rely on bristling/abrasive characters, or overtly admire itself for being dry

and sly.

It's a sitcom that works hard to entertain, to reward us for being smart,

to accentuate its quirky characters' likability. When I say "Andy Barker, P.I."

is a sweet little show, I mean it's like cream in your coffee. The exotic bite

you seek is still there, only toned down so you can better savor its

distinctive flavor.

OK, I've gone overboard. But this affectionate new NBC lampoon never does,

and that's another joy worth noting.

Andy is played by Andy Richter, former sidekick to late-night host Conan

O'Brien and onetime star of "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," the 2002 NBC

officecom that may have died as one of those too-clever miscalculations. He's

an ordinary guy, again, because that's what the doughy Richter has to be - a

mild-mannered accountant greeted in his drab new mini-mall office by a smoking

Russian siren asking him to find her missing husband. The digs used to house a

tough private dick, and this case of mistaken identity offers Andy a

surprisingly liberating adventure.

He's still a tax-absorbed accountant who drives a sensible Saturn, and he

still hangs with the loser movie freak who runs the downstairs (dying) video

store, and they still eat at the Afghan guy's plate-lunch place with too many

patriotic signs. ("You can't spell hummus without U.S.")

But his pals wouldn't mind some adventure, either, so the excitable Afghan

entrepreneur (Marshall Manesh) and thinks-he's-suave video dude (Tony Hale, the

youngest brother from "Arrested Development") aid Andy's investigations, with

guidance from a crusty retired detective and Commie-hating throwback (the

pitch-perfectly cantankerous Harve Presnell).

It's hard to convey all the ways that this tightly directed show goes

right: quietly observant character detail, solid sleuthing, play-it-straight

absurdity and sneaky "Airplane!"-style parody riffs. (Hale does a "Starsky &

Hutch" car-hood roll.)

"Barker" was created on the side by O'Brien - who, we sometimes forget,

made his name writing smart yet accessible character-driven satire for "The

Simpsons" - in partnership with his former late-night head writer Jonathan

Groff. Every little character is oddly endearing, including Barker's

gentle/edgy wife (Clea Lewis of "Ellen"), his lazy/angry secretary squatter

("MADtv's" Nicole Randall Johnson) and the guest stars who just as heartily

chew on peculiar cases like the upcoming "murderous chicken cartel."

The location-shot action feels legitimate, too, its car chases and gunplay

artfully staged to rousing music a la "Shaft" or, perhaps more properly,

"Police Squad!" For every knowing reference to "Chinatown" or Hootie & the

Blowfish, there's something endearingly everyday, like Andy's squeaky-clean

swearing ("Cheese and crackers!") or the side-by-side laptops with which he and

his wife lie in bed trading instant messages. That's authentic affection

between them, as real life pulsates winningly here beneath the glamorous

golf-cart chases and fat-slob heart attacks.

ANDY BARKER, P.I.

Delightfully droll comedy about an inadvertent "private eye-accountant

combination" and his wacky everyman sidekicks. Series premieres tonight at 9:30

on NBC/4. (All six spring episodes already streaming at nbc.com.)

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