Los Angeles Times

USA's off-kilter drama is James Bond, on the cheap

Canada has a Secret Service. Really. Skeptical questions and quizzical looks at the mention of it are the crosses that its agents, Darryl Freehorn in particular, have to bear.

Darryl is the centerpiece of "Underfunded," another enjoyably off-kilter USA Network crime-fighting drama in the spirit of "Monk" and "Psych," airing Wednesday, Nov. 8. However, "Underfunded" is apparently also underappreciated. No episodes beyond the pilot have been ordered, generally a sign that it would take a "CSI"-level tune-in for a pick-up order. In other words, no shot.

Too bad. The light-hearted drama offers a lot to like, headed by Mather Zickel's tongue-in-cheek characterization of an earnest, square-jawed covert agent whose nationality is no secret. Darryl, who tips 15 cents on a $19.85 taxi fare, is forced to cut corners, as the Canadian Secret Service is chronically underfunded. Operatives from other nations fly in private jets, stay at ritzy hotels and drive flashy sports cars. Darryl's travel budget allows for only Greyhound buses, Red Roof Inns and Fords.

Zickel adeptly works the comedic angles while keeping the character just real enough to make him work.

The security of the world is rarely at stake when Darryl is dispatched into the field for demeaning tasks, such as busting geriatrics smuggling Viagra across the border. What turns out to be the biggest assignment of his career starts as the retrieval of a toilet seat that fell to earth from an ill-fated space station. It's a rare week when the self-important Darryl doesn't resign in frustration by Thursday; during really exasperating periods, he has his papers in by Tuesday. However, a sense of duty unfailingly causes him to reconsider. His tantrums are tolerated because he's really good at his job, although his methods are borderline farcical.

Zickel is ably supported by Joanna Canton as Naomi Lutz, Darryl's ever efficient, starry-eyed assistant. Naomi yearns to become a field agent but clearly would settle for being Mrs. Freehorn, which is apparent to everyone but Darryl. Naomi tiptoes to the precipice of being a cliche, but Canton's enthusiasm makes her a likable complement to the star.

Frequent homage is paid to James Bond -- the "Goldfinger" theme can be briefly heard -- but the Canadian Secret Service can't afford 007's lethal toys and gadgets. Darryl has to settle for whatever low-tech gimmicks an overmatched lab worker named Nash can provide. Dhirendra, who plays Nash, shares a bond with his fringe character: Both go by only one name.

The ensemble is filled by Brian Howe as Darryl's bean-counting boss, Owen Barnaby, and Ryan McPartlin as Matt Sykes, Darryl's mayhem-loving counterpart in the U.S. Secret Service, who has an uncanny knack for being able to steal plaudits rightly due to the man from north of the border.

Even though far less entertaining pilots have been picked up for series, the 90-minute pilot likely will be the last heard of "Underfunded." Nevertheless, it's still worth a look as an amusing nightcap to an evening.

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