Andy Richter Controls the Universe was a series I knew by reputation rather than actual experience; it was one of many, many quality shows that the Fox network mishandled in the early part of the decade, dooming to short runs by placing them in bad time slots, shuffling and pulling from the schedule at random, and airing episodes out of order (other examples include Undeclared and Firefly). Andy Richter Controls the Universe aired for two half-seasons in 2002 and 2003; Fox aired 14 episodes before pulling the plug, in spite of Emmy recognition and terrific reviews (not to mention the fact that they had paid for five more episodes that never even made it to air). But the show had a fervent (if small) cult audience, and with Richter returning to his sidekick slot as Conan O'Brien takes over The Tonight Show, it's as good a time as any to take another look at his first attempt at a starring sitcom.
Richter plays "Andy Richter" (fancy that), a would-be short story writer who pays the bills writing technical manuals for a Chicago manufacturing firm. The firm's founder, the long-dead Mr. Pickering (John Bliss) still wanders the halls (at least in Andy's eyes), offering outdated advice and outmoded opinions. Andy's direct supervisor is Jessica (Paget Brewster of Friends), a tough career woman and longtime friend; his officemate is odd and weasely Byron (Jonathan Slavin). When the show begins, Andy has a fierce crush on new receptionist Wendy (Irene Molloy), but she quickly falls for his handsome co-worker and friend Keith (James Patrick Stuart), so Andy's failures at love become one of the show's running themes.
The show is a strange brew of office comedy and absurdist flights of fancy; it's rather in the mold of Scrubs (which was in development around the same time) or a male Ally McBeal (but, you know, watchable). It takes them a few episodes to get the mixture just right; some of the early touches of whimsy, like an unexplained morphing of a funeral parlor to a disco, are a stretch. But by the middle of the run, it was really hitting its stride--funny, odd, and charmingly likable. The writing is top-notch, and no wonder; many of the writing crew have continued to distinguished careers, including creator Victor Fresco (My Name Is Earl), Jennifer Celotta (The Office), and Matthew Weiner (who wrote for The Sopranos before creating TV's best current drama, Mad Men). Their best scripts combine a sure sense of character comedy, bizarre sight gags, and the occasional well-placed non-sequitur ("Sardines! They're lucky to even be a fish!").
The cast also helps--it's a crackerjack ensemble, each character quirky, funny, and fully realized. Richter proves himself an unexpectedly strong anchor to the show--he's the kind of likably schlubby man-child that would be at home in an Apatow film. Brewster is wickedly fun to watch; she's great-looking, tough, and her timing can't be beat. Slavin's Bryon is a little broad at times (they were clearly hoping to make him the show's Kramer), but he still lands plenty of laughs. Stuart wisely chooses to play handsome Keith (for whom everything--everything--comes easy) absolutely straight, even when he becomes dangerously addicted to self-fried foods. Molloy is basically the pretty ingénue, but she makes the most of the occasional opportunities to display her comic chops (as in "We're All The Same, Only Different," when she becomes a guinea pig for an experimental drug that ends up lowering her voice to manly levels).
I'm not quite sure why the DVD set doesn't correct Fox's error and place the episodes in their correct order. The second episode, for example, is literally called "The Second Episode," but it aired fourth; it introduced Andy's stoner neighbors, Teak (Charlie Finn) and Phil (Sean Gunn) at length, but we're given a rushed introduction to them in the second episode to air, "Grief Counselor," which also wraps up Andy and Wendy's romance far sooner than was intended. It's easy to spot when they've veered off-course--Malloy made a huge hairstyle change midway through the run, but suddenly we're seeing her old hair during second season episodes. In any case, it's a distraction and a mistake (in both the small details and the overall character arcs) that should have been corrected.
But that certainly doesn't prevent enjoyment of the show. Standout episodes include the aforementioned "Grief Counselor," where a pair of office-related deaths draw Andy and Wendy closer ("She's even hot when she mourns!"); "Little Andy In Charge," in which Andy can't decide whether to keep sleeping with his high school crush when he discovers she's anti-Semitic--or, in his words, a "hate-spouting hottie"; "Twins," in which Jessica discovers that a pair of handsome twins are sharing her, and she's kind of fine with it; "The Maid Man," in which Andy's affair with Jessica's made goes awry, and we find out about Keith's one flaw; and "Saturday Early Evening Fever," a laugh-out-loud examination (with a perfect reveal) of Byron's inappropriate relationship with Andy's grandmother (played by good sport June Lockheart), beautifully supplemented by a subplot in which Wendy and Keith get hooked on grandma's ancient medicine.
The single best episode, however, is "Crazy In Rio," which features Richter's old employer Conan O'Brien in an uproarious guess shot as their new, nutty-as-a-fruitcake
boss. "He's an heir," Keith explains, "they're all eccentric." O'Brien is funny as hell in what is indisputably the show's strangest episode, with its midget boxing, mentions of genitalia theft and duct-tape kidnappings, and a running joke about Edsel Ford and his lust for appliances.
(I only have one other complaint, which may say more about this reviewer than it does about the show: there is exactly one exterior establishing shot of the building that houses their office. We learn from the audio commentary that it is a stock shot of the Duke & Duke building from "Trading Places," but I really wish they would have sprung for a couple more. You might not notice if you don't watch the shows back-to-back, all at once, as I did, but that one shot pops up over and over again, often several times per episode, and it started making me crazy. Or you might just use it as the starting point for a drinking game, and deal with it that way.)
Andy Richter Controls the Universe: The Complete Series is spread out over three discs, with the first disc holding the six first-season episodes, the second featuring the eight second-season episodes, and the five unaired episodes and special features comprising the third disc. Discs one and two are housed in a clear ThinPak case, with disc three in its own matching case. Both cases are housed in a simple cardboard sleeve.
Also of note: The packaging warns of music replacement in the show. A reader (with, apparently, a very good memory) inquired as to whether certain music cues were present, and as they were not, I can confirm that some replacement has apparently taken place. That's always a drag, but it doesn't do any particular damage to the series; as a first-time viewer of the show, I wasn't struck by anything seeming out of place, so the changes will likely only be noticed by the most hardcore fans.
The anamorphic 16x9 image is bright and cheery, though a little on the soft side. Colors pop fairly well, though the black levels aren't as deep as one might like and the exterior nighttime establishing shots (presumably drawn from stock footage) are noticeably grainy and noisy.
The 2.0 audio mix is, frankly, a little muddy. The sound is perfectly acceptable during straight dialogue scenes (which, in all fairness, is the bulk of the show), but audibility becomes an issue when the show's frequent (and loud) music cues are layered on top of dialogue. A 5.1 mix might have lent the separation necessary to correct this problem; there's also some minor high-end distortion in a couple of early episodes. As it is, you won't lose any punchlines, but the audio quality does leave something to be desired.
No subtitles or alternate language tracks are included.
Richter and creator Victor Fresco contribute audio commentaries to two first-season episodes, the "Pilot" and "Little Andy In Charge." Their musings are loose and very funny, in addition to being at least marginally informative; they're entertaining enough that you wish they had done them for more episodes.
The featurette "How Andy Richter Controlled The Universe" (25:06) is well-produced and interesting, featuring new interviews with Fresco and the entire cast (and many, many clips). It's good to catch up with everyone, and many of them (particularly Stuart and Brewster) are very funny in their interviews, though you might wish they'd spent less time with the fawning profiles of each actor and more on the making of (and reaction to) the show itself.
Those same interviews provide the materials for the shorter "What If Andy Richter Controlled The Universe?" (4:25), in which the actors answer that very question. There are a few scattered laughs, but it's fairly disposable.
Andy Richter Controls the Universe is an odd, quirky, frequently hilarious little gem of a show. It takes a while to find it's footing, and doesn't always nail its unique tone, but the smart writing and engaging cast always entertain. Fox didn't give the show a fair shake; hopefully its DVD release will help it find more of the audience that eluded it all those years ago. Highly Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.