Is there a TV genre more well-worn than the detective show? Pretty much ever since broadcasters started beaming signals into homes, gumshoes and shamuses and sleuths have been solving crimes on screen.
So when NBC debuts not one, but two new detective shows on the same night (Thursday), you have to wonder if either one, Andy Barker, P.I. or Raines, will contain anything at all that we haven’t seen a hundred times before.
The answer, happily and a little surprisingly in both cases, is yeah, they do. Both shows — Andy is a comedy and Raines a drama — seem to rely on the notion that we know what a detective show is supposed to be, then twist the idea just a bit to come up with something that feels fresh.
Conan O’Brien and former Late Night writer Jonathan Groff created Andy Barker (9:30 p.m. ET), which stars O’Brien’s one-time sidekick Andy Richter as an accountant who’s just hung his shingle at a suburban mini-mall. Business, however, is deadly slow until a mysterious woman drops by his office and asks for his help finding her presumed-dead husband.
Andy’s a little bit befuddled at her request, until he realizes that his office used to house Lew Staziak (the hilarious Harve Presnell), a bare-knuckles private eye in the Mike Hammer mold. A little bit intrigued — but just as much in need of something to do — Andy takes the case, enlisting video-store manager Simon (Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale) to help with the details of investigative work, which Simon knows mostly from Chinatown and other movie classics.
Andy (both the actor and the character) is a consummate nice guy, and placing him in the hard- (OK, soft-) boiled world of femmes fatales and shady dealings makes for a very satisfying brand of comedy. When he gets shot at in Thursday’s pilot, he’s angry at the person pulling the trigger, but mostly because it just seems rude.
The show also winks at the conventions of the detective genre, particularly the 1970s heyday of Jim Rockford, Mannix and Cannon, with its titles, music cues and the occasional camera angle. It’s not an out-and-out spoof; most of the laughs come from specific situations and the characters. But if you know those old shows, those touches are an extra little kick.
Raines (10 p.m. ET), too, pays homage to the past, but its roots go back to classic film noir and Raymond Chandler (a murder victim’s apartment in the pilot, in fact, comes straight from Robert Altman’s film of The Long Goodbye). The show makes great use of L.A. locations, from that apartment in the Hollywood hills to the canals of Venice: Everything’s sun-dappled and postcard-perfect, except for the dead bodies.
Oh, and one more thing: LAPD detective Michael Raines (Jeff Goldblum) sees dead people. But unlike the other I-see-dead-people shows currently on television, Raines’ ghosts are only hallucinations, the post-traumatic result of his partner (Malik Yoba) being killed in the line of duty. Which means he’s essentially talking to himself.
It’s a pretty ingenious device: Because the victims are in his head, they don’t know any more about why they’re dead when Raines does, and he engages them in a kind of Socratic dialogue to get at the cause of and reason for their deaths. As he uncovers new information, his perception of the victim changes accordingly.
Credit goes, too, to creator Graham Yost (Boomtown), who doesn’t cheat with the audience. Instead of leading him by the hand to the big break in the case, Raines’ hallucinations challenge him to figure things out on his own, effectively taking the audience inside his head too.
Goldblum is a very specific, often very quirky actor, and the role fits him to a T. He wisely underplays some comedic moments — the series isn’t nearly as broad as, say, Monk — and offers up a real sense that, all things being equal, he’d rather like it if these murder victims would stop talking to him.
Matt Craven as his captain, Nicole Sullivan as a civilian employee of the department and, in later episodes, Madeleine Stowe as his therapist all offer strong support as well. This is Goldblum’s show, though, and he makes the most of it.
Whether NBC will make the most of either Raines or Andy Barker is still an open question. The network made just seven episodes of Raines and six of Andy (all of the latter are available online, and one will be exclusive to the web).
Is that enough time for either show to find an audience? Maybe not, and that’s kind of a shame — because both shows deserve one.