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Andy Richter Controls the Spreadsheet

Just a soft-boiled bean counter navigating a hard-boiled universe.

I hope there’s no cosmic three-strikes rule in prime-time television, because then the hopes of funny Andy Richter having his own hit series would have to fall on NBC’s new midseason comedy Andy Barker P.I., in which Richter plays a tax accountant who dabbles in noirish detective work. Don’t get me wrong, I like the new show: its workmanlike verve, its professionalism. But its joys are simple, the kind of laughs that don’t feel new so much as pleasantly old-fashioned — think the warm familiarity of Get Smart or a Donald E. Westlake novel — as if it had already made friends in syndication or TV Land. It’s the sitcom version of a tasty, reliable snack rather than the meatier instant-classic laughs of 30 Rock, whose time slot Barker will temporarily fill. (And why do we have to have one without the other, NBC?)

Since Richter left his sidekick post on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, the reedy-voiced, corn-fed cherub has seen two prime-time projects hit the dust. His first solo go, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, was a memorably nutty workplace sitcom that — as if to prove comedy timing is a larger scheduling issue too — would probably have fared better in NBC’s current culty-sitcom lineup than it did as a lone bastion of inventive quirk on Fox. About Quintuplets, his next Fox sitcom, the less said the better. (Whatever you’re imagining that show was, it was.)

Now Richter is back with O’Brien, in a sense, since his former boss is the co-creator/executive producer of Andy Barker P.I. And even though O’Brien hasn’t shown up yet in the episodes I’ve watched — you have to assume that a cameo will come at some point — there’s a sense of affirmation that this was always a good team-up. On Late Night, Richter forever seemed like a happy mental patient who was moonlighting as a sidekick, so it makes sense that the goofy charm in this new effort lies in Barker shifting gears between the worlds of number-crunching drudgery and hot, smoky criminality, but forever retaining his golly-jeepers approach to life’s seedy underbelly. When sinister-looking thugs make a late-night visit to our hero’s office and throw an envelope of photos at him, Richter flips through a few, widens those delightfully naive eyes and blurts out, “Hey, these are dirty!”

Now, of course, it’s Richter who gets a sidekick. A few, in fact. One is the cine-geek (Tony Hale from Arrested Development) who works at the video store underneath Barker’s CPA office; another is the Afghan restaurateur (Marshall Manesh) a few doorbells over from him. Then there’s the crusty shamus (a hilarious Harve Presnell) who used to operate from Barker’s address, and who is less of a mentor than a batty old generator of dime-novel lingo and loose-cannon theatrics that has to be reined in. But ultimately the name on the door is Barker’s — by which I mean Richter’s — and it’s he who will have to crack the case of network success. I hope he succeeds, because there’s a fairly sturdy comic premise in a soft-boiled bean counter navigating a hard-boiled universe. But it also seems to reflect the problems a modest comedy faces in this danger-filled time for sitcoms.

ABC’s new drama series October Road is so checklist-full of dumb plot points, missing pieces and unanswered questions it could be a “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” exercise from a puzzle magazine. It almost seems to thrive on triteness and lack of cohesion. Since its main story’s battery power is an author’s writer’s block, I could be generous and say that it’s all intended, a Charlie Kaufman–esque goof in which everything is a manifestation of the chaotic mind. But Christmas was a few months ago.

The idea for the show is a good one, actually. Nick (Bryan Greenberg) leaves small-town life behind — buddies, girlfriend, everything — for New York, where he writes a best-selling roman à clef that unflatteringly depicts his former intimates. Stuck on inspiration for his next book, he accepts a one-day teaching gig at his hometown college and decides to make a go of repairing the burned bridges. As a blueprint, it holds promise, especially the notion of someone exploring feelings of being a turncoat, a fraud.

Everything feels off, though. For starters, we know what Nick is running back to, but what is he now running from? His years in the city is a back story with no story, no acknowledgment of the chums he is now abandoning as he sets off on his adventure in search of old chums. Is he just a shitty friend?

Then there’s the fact that fictional Knights Ridge, Massachusetts, with its fall colors, big houses, quaint shops and liberal arts college nearby, hardly looks like a backwater worth fleeing from in the first place — unlike, say, the pointedly overcast remoteness essential to the big-dreams drama of Friday Night Lights. And there’s the unfortunate Sorkin-esque tinge to the dialogue too. In the minds of creators Josh Applebaum, Andre Nemec and Scott Rosenberg, if someone wants a moment of a character’s time, why say “Sure” when there are lines like “Not if the upshot is catastrophic injury” to show off?

Of course, everyone from Nick’s formative years conveniently stayed behind too, including the flame he bolted on, now-single mom Hannah (Laura Prepon), whose withering response to encountering Nick again would be enough for most guys to cut their losses and run. But naturally it emboldens Nick — especially the mystery of her 10-year-old (!) son, with the strangely writerlike (!) vocabulary — which is supposed to feel romantic but basically hints at an unappealing masochistic asshole-ishness. (There’s a strange harassment element to Nick’s drive — the way he secures a job with the college is especially far-fetched — that Greenberg can’t make appealing no matter how hard he tries.) But while Prepon convincingly communicates resurgent wells of hurt, the writers then stack the win-her-back deck by putting her in a relationship with the town jerk (Warren Christie), which is such a thoroughly needless contrivance it’s gasp-worthy. And then we’re on said jerk’s side when Nick irritatingly berates him over an especially unclever quip, sounding especially unclever himself in the process. It’s like a vortex of hackiness. If Nick is supposed to find inspiration revisiting his old life, discovering that it’s become a turgid soap opera should be more than enough proof that he’s better off in New York.

ANDY BARKER P.I. | NBC | Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. Premieres March 15.

OCTOBER ROAD | ABC | Thursdays, 10 p.m. Premieres March 15.