TV Review: HBO’s ‘Bored to Death’

09.18.09 8 years ago

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Remember that existential comedy-mystery about self-aware, self-absorbed hipsters that you requested? 

HBO’s “Bored to Death” premieres on Sunday, Sept. 20 and if you embrace its quirky, dead-pan, hyper-verbose sensibility, you may find yourself enjoying one of the fall’s best new shows. 

As great as my appreciation for “Bored to Death” may be, though, it comes with one rather major caveat: The pilot episode isn’t very good. The tone, the characters and the pacing of creator Jonathan Ames’ world just weren’t locked in properly in the beginning and it’s actually amazing that HBO executives were able to see past that pilot and order a series.

I’m pleased they did, because the second and third episodes are an oddball treat, a pleasing showcase for star Jason Schwartzman and co-stars Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis.

[Full review after the break.]

Schwartzman plays Jonathan Ames (yes, it’s that sort of series), a writer struggling with the breakup of a relationship and his inability to produce a second novel. Not helping his struggles are his appreciation of marijuana and an over-reliance on white wine. 

Jonathan’s best friends are enablers and like-minded individuals, manic depressive cartoonist Ray (Galifianakis, very funny, but still short of his full potential) and big-deal magazine editor George (Danson, in top form), who mostly give him license for additional wallowing and pot-smoking.

One day, on a whim, Jonathan posts an ad on Craig’s List describing himself as an unlicensed private investigator, figuring his appreciation for Raymond Chandler will take the place of any real expertise. Whether he does it out of boredom, as the show’s title suggests, or as a new form of procrastination, he’s soon enlisted to track down missing relatives and philandering partners. He may not be good, but he’s cheap.

Since everything in his world is really all about Jonathan, the mysteries are as well and sometimes there aren’t even clients or investigations so much as excuses to go undercover, something Jonathan does spectacularly well. Even when playing other people, he can only play himself.

Although Ames (the real man, not the fictional character) denied any real connection when I asked him point-blank at Television Critics Association press tour, readers familiar with Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy are almost certain to make a connection with the novella “City of Glass,” in which a mystery writer tries his hand at private investigation with predictably meta consequences.

When approaching “Bored to Death,” a key thing to remember is that you aren’t necessarily supposed to like Fictional Jonathan. A poorly motivated, self-hating narcissist, Jonathan might, in fact, be hatable, if he weren’t played by Schwartzman, who makes the character a perfectly plausible extension of Max Fischer from “Rushmore.” Jonathan’s girlfriend (“Wackness” star Olivia Thirlby, who could be used a lot more) leaves him because he keeps saying he’ll change, but he never does and the show mocks the idea that even by forcing new experiences on yourself it’s ever really possible for an entrenched person to change who they are.

“Lives don’t change,” declares an aggressive shrink played by Denis O’Hare. “We simply become more comfortable with our core misery. Which is a form of happiness.”

The entire premise is a lark on the notion that a man this far up his own butt would decide that his true calling was investigating the world around him. And no, it not a coincidence that a major subplot of Episode Two finds Jonathan and Ray getting colonics. 

Very little in “Bored to Death,” in fact, is a coincidence, which I appreciated. You start by feeling that the laconic world-view is like something out of a Jim Jarmusch film and then Jim Jarmusch appears in Episode Three, playing himself. That, in turn, is a reminder that one of Jarmusch’s few acting roles was in the movie “Blue in the Face,” which just happens to have been written by Paul Auster, who just happens to have *totally* not inspired “Bored to Death,” if you trust Jonathan Ames. “Bored to Death” is a proudly circular, self-devouring ouroboros of a comedy. And you’ll recall that Charlie Kaufman utilized the ouroboros symbol in “Adaptation,” so nobody will be surprised that Charlie Kaufman is name-checked in an early episode.

“Bored to Death” occupies an expansive intellectual universe, one that can encompass references to “Fight Club,” Carl Jung, Pedro Almodovar favorite Rossy de Palma, Frank O’Hara and the 1976 TV movie “Raid on Entebbe” (previously prominently mentioned in an episode of “House,” which Jonathan Ames almost certainly knows). So yes, the show is both smart and pretentious, a combination that resonates with this reviewer.

It’s hard to explain why the first episode doesn’t work, but it’s going to turn off a number of viewers. Because the premise is so slight and hardly needs to be justified at all, it’s not like “Bored to Death” has all that much exposition to go through. 

Maybe Real Ames hadn’t figured out how to make Fictional Ames into an amiable enough shlemiel? Subsequent episodes use Schwartzman’s gift for physical comedy and make him into a bit of a punching bag. Maybe Ames needed a couple weeks to utilize the hilarity in Galifianakis’ man-child vulnerability? Maybe there just wasn’t enough screentime for Danson? Perhaps later episodes were aided by guest stars like Kristen Wiig, Oliver Platt and the aforementioned O’Hare.

Or maybe Ames just found a way to make “Bored to Death” funny after that first episode. It’s not a laugh-out-loud kind of hilarity so much as a “Yes, I’m in on the joke” complicity. “Bored to Death” ropes you (or “me,” I guess) into the idea that you understand these characters, before exposing the ways in which you’re like these characters. 

I guess that means a certain amount of self-identification may be required to really get “Bored to Death,” but because of the amount of interwoven pop culture awareness, much of the work has been done for you. If you like Jarmusch or Auster, if you like Woody Allen or Jonathan Lethem, if you laugh at articles from McSweeney’s or you found HBO’s “The Life and Times of Tim” to be hilarious, give “Bored to Death” a shot. And make sure you stick with it past the first week. It gets better. I promise.

“Bored to Death” premieres on HBO on Sunday, Sept. 20 at 9:30 p.m.

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