Watching the Detectives

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Courtesy of Chris Haston/NBC and Paul Drinkwater/NBC

As the Los Angeles police detective Michael Raines, Jeff Goldblum not only talks to the camera—in soliloquies more than a little redolent of Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer—but he also talks to the dead. That is, at the crime scene, or in his car cruising Mulholland Drive, or on the pier at Santa Monica, or staring into the still waters of a canal in Venice, he is overwhelmed by Jennifer Love Hewittishness. He first hallucinates and then chats up the victims whose murders he will investigate. Although this may be an improvement on talking to God, it does not inspire confidence in such cop-shop colleagues as Matt Craven, Nicole Sullivan, Dov Davidoff, and Linda Park. Even Jeff’s ex-partner, Malik Yoba, has doubts about Raines’s sanity. Of course, we found out last week in the series premiere that Yoba himself is dead.

So this week Jeff will be forced to see a shrink (Madeleine Stowe), whom he tries to con by plagiarizing the story of the drowning brother in Ordinary People. Much as he too is freaked by blathering ghosts who are not much substantive help to him because, being figments of his imagination, they only know what he knows, he has work to do that can’t be done on a couch at a psychiatrist’s. He has to run down the clients of a dead prostitute and the equally dead private eye who might have been in cahoots with her. Or, having identified a “floater” as a hit man from Mexico, he must figure out why any hit man on a contract job to assassinate a Los Angeles city councilman would want to take his wife and son to Disneyland. In L.A., this means a lot of driving around, between references to Lewis and Clark and jokes about Erik Estrada.

Whether he is explaining chaos theory (Jurassic Park), leching after people (The Big Chill), forgetting his mantra (Annie Hall), or turning into an insect (The Fly), Goldblum is almost always interesting to watch. Raines is no exception. For some reason, he looks like Jack Webb in the old Dragnet—oddly totemic: part umbrella, part barber pole, part cleric—if Webb had received an introspection transplant. But he is stuck in a peculiar lassitude. The show seems to take forever to get anywhere. It’s as if executive producer Graham Yost (Boomtown) had forgotten how to build, bend, stretch, and snap a story. On Raines, even the dead are listless.

Whereas endomorphic Andy Richter, as Andy Barker, P.I., is in constant, frantic, slapstick motion, on the run from his office to a Russian Orthodox church to a plumbing-supplies store to a golf course to a slaughterhouse. (I have decided not to explain “the murderous chicken cartel.”) And Andy, an accountant who is mistaken for the private eye (Harve Presnell) who used to lease his strip-mall space, has only half an hour to solve each case. Since this is Richter, you will not be surprised to learn that Conan O’Brien is a co-creator of the show.

You may be surprised to hear that it works. A 30-minute mystery, even played for farce, comes as a relief after too many sitcoms about yuppie sex problems and obnoxious children. Get Smart was fun, so was Sledge Hammer, and even Lookwell had its moments. (Lookwell, in which Conan O’Brien had a hand in 1991, rather anticipated Andy Barker, with Adam West as an actor who’d played a detective on television and couldn’t give up the role in real life.) The zanies this time, besides Clea Lewis as Andy’s wife, are a multicultural mix of Tony Hale in the video-rental shop, Marshall Manesh at the kebab counter, and Nicole Randall Johnson as the archives clerk who appoints herself as Andy’s ferocious assistant. But Andy is Andy, as likable as he is bountiful.

NBC. Thursdays at 10 p.m.

Andy Barker, P.I.
NBC. Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.

Watching the Detectives