Show has skewed view of `Universe'

Preview: `Andy' can go from charming to goofy, but it's got potential to bring laughs.

March 19, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I admit I wasn't expecting much, but what a pleasant surprise Andy Richter Controls the Universe turned out to be. The midseason Fox sitcom starring Conan O'Brien's former sidekick manages to be both outrageous and charming - something most network sitcoms can't get even half right.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a great sitcom by any stretch of the imagination. Instead of charming, we sometimes get goofy. And going for outrageous is always a dangerous game.

But that's just the point: This is a sitcom that takes risks in the comic sensibility for which it reaches. And that is such a pleasure to see after the oh-so-formulaic cutesy-cutesy cuteness of other midseason sitcoms like NBC's Leap of Faith.

"This is a show about possibilities - the endless possibilities that life serves up to us every day," we hear Andy (that's the name of his character) saying in voiceover as the camera shows him lying in bed about to get up for the start of the workday.

"I think about this stuff constantly. That's probably why I'm a writer; writers are obsessed with possibilities."

Andy is a wannabe short story writer earning a living as a technical writer at a huge corporation, Pickering Industries in Chicago. He's currently working on the manual for a new, improved torpedo for the Department of Defense, but most of his office time is spent daydreaming of Wendy (Irene Molloy), the receptionist in his department.

I know, this also is a formula: the Walter Mitty formula. But at least creator Victor Fresco is borrowing from one of the best, James Thurber.

This is where most of the charm resides - in watching the agony Andy goes through in trying to get up the nerve to simply say hello to Wendy. Of course, we get the full-blown fantasy segments of how he'd like his greetings to play with this particular audience of one.

The pilot wastes no time in reaching for the outrageous once Andy gets to the office. As he gets off the elevator, Andy falls into step alongside an elderly man using a walking stick and wearing a turn-of-the-century business suit.

"Oh look, here's the dead guy who founded the company over a hundred years ago. Hello Mr. Pickering," Andy says.

The old man turns to him and, looking down his nose, says, "The problem with America is the Negro and the Jew."

"Hmmm. You're just a huge racist [jerk]. Aren't you?" Andy replies.

"Maybe so, but in 1903, I revolutionized the manufacturing of the steel ingot. What have you done except write a bunch of short stories you can't even get published."

The exchange ends with Pickering leaning into Andy's face and saying, "What kind of man calls himself a writer anyway? I'll tell you what kind: the homosexual."

As Pickering walks away, Andy begins talking to us again: "OK, it's a big company founded by a jerk."

As bizarre as the exchange is in on the surface, it is a brilliant, dead-on reminder of the mindset of men like Henry Ford, who founded some of the corporations that our culture has come to so worship today while we conveniently forget the ugliness on which they built.

In the end, workplace sitcoms often live or die on the strength of the ensemble that forms the leading character's surrogate family. This is a promising group. In addition to Molloy, Paget Brewster and Jonathan Slavin are funny without being silly. Brewster plays Andy's boss, while Slavin moves in as an unwelcome office mate.

I am sorry to see Undeclared, one of my favorite sitcoms, lose this time period. It is on hiatus and probably never coming back. I hate that, but I have to admit Andy Richter Rules the Universe is a worthy replacement.

Tonight's TV

What:Andy Richter Rules the Universe

When: Tonight at 8:30

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In brief: Andy Richter goes Walter Mitty.

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