Benefit of the Doubt
The boys of HBO’s Bored to Death are back for their third season in a loose and funny two-parter. The first episode, “The Blonde in the Woods,” began on 10 October with a bang, or would that be a thwack? At a book signing to promote his latest novel, author cum private detective Jonathan Ames (Schwartzman) was strapped to a spinning wheel as a knife-thrower hurled blades his way, an act he thought would serve as “a metaphorical ribbon cutting.” As his best friends, new restaurateur George (Ted Danson) and comic book artist Ray (Zack Galifianakis), were on hand to help celebrate, so too were Jonathan’s parents. His father chose this as the perfect moment to reveal that Jonathan was a sperm bank baby, a disclosure that will likely shape the arc of the entire season.
This season introduced a new case too, as well as Jonathan being framed for murder. As he tried to evade the police and track down the real killer, George and Ray contended with the equally daunting challenges of fatherhood. George attempted to reconcile with his estranged adult daughter, who promptly introduced him to her 60-year-old boyfriend (“I met him at a séance where we were trying to communicate with the original designer of Fiestaware”). Ray was bonding with his infant son, Spenser, who was conceived by two lesbians with sperm stolen from him in an earlier season.
As usual, all three men were at a loss, and did their best to help each other. In the second episode, “Gumball,” premiering 18 October, George houses and comforts Ray and the fugitive Jonathan, dressing them in matching pairs of monogrammed pajamas. “Come on,” he says, “I’ll turn on the vaporizer.” When he receives a phone call from Jonathan, a stoned and paranoid George asks the ersatz detective to identify himself by sharing a piece of information about George that only Jonathan could know. After a beat, Jonathan replies sadly, “Last night, you and Ray snuggled and didn’t include me.”
Such a perfectly written and delivered line! The show regularly strips Jonathan of his tough-guy illusions, and this is an admirably economical and poignant example. Such self-deprecating non sequiturs are a hallmark of the show’s humor; with them, Bored to Death makes clear its comedic influences in a way that feels fresh. Jonathan is reminiscent of the bumbling nebbish of Woody Allen’s early comedies, most notably Play It Again, Sam (though Robert Mitchum is Jonathan’s muse, rather than Humphrey Bogart). Ray is similar to the stunted Judd Apatow’s man-boys, with even more extreme regressive tendencies. He’s more of a man-baby, a point the second episode makes explicit when Ray reveals that one of his favorite things is having his girlfriend soak her nipples in whiskey and “nurse” him.
Admitted pothead George recalls comic stoners past and present, though he has more money and formal schooling than most. The literary in-jokes, the jazzy soundtrack, and the New York backdrop add an elegant sheen to the antics. The show makes great use of its Manhattan and Brooklyn locations, both the familiar, like Grand Central Station, and the less iconic, like the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, where Jonathan dangles from a clock high above the city streets, à la Harold Lloyd in Safety Last. A gunfight at the Prospect Park Carousel is particularly silly and inspired.
These locations help to ground George, Ray, and Jonathan, who are otherwise three narcissistic balls of mush desperately yearning to be more macho than they are. Jonathan, of course, fashions himself a noirish private eye; Ray’s alter ego is the superhero of the comic books he writes; and oyster-popping George clings to the delusion that he can remain ever young and virile. (He is the subject of a magazine article whose headline screams, “60 Is the New 45!”) Their moves are neither practiced nor smooth, but it turns out they do have reserves of bravery to tap, especially when the others are in peril.
The relaxed rapport among the three leads is the main draw of this show. Sleek, snowy-haired Danson is as essential to their dynamic as Alec Baldwin is to the mix of personalities on 30 Rock. As Ray, a depressive prone to unpredictable fits of pique, Galifianakis is a live wire, often hilariously. Schwartzman injects Jonathan with such good-natured naiveté, it’s difficult not to find him endearing. The detective may be a neurotic, overly chatty troublemaker, but he is unfailingly polite and always gives people the benefit of the doubt (one reason he ends up in so many scrapes, one imagines).
He did so in “The Blonde in the Woods,” when he broke into a hotel room, surprising a naked woman just emerging from the bathroom. Assuring her that he was not there to molest her, he had to let her know he found “very beautiful.” And, after a police officer admits a troubling fact to Jonathan in “Gumball,” Jonathan doesn’t bat an eye; he’s merely happy that the cop has gotten himself into therapy and is doing better these days. Despite its gratuitous nudity, double-crossing gunplay, and growing pile of corpses, Bored to Death is a remarkably gentle show and its characters surprisingly lovable. After an especially engaging episode like “Gumball,” you just might want to throw your arms around it and give its tush an affectionate squeeze.