[10 November 2010]
HBO’s Bored To Death is a unique series that is part noir mystery and part modern relationship comedy. In blending genres, or rather by not strictly sticking to genre conventions, the show manages to create an engaging story built around characters, absurd though they may seem at times, that draw the viewer in. Created and written by Jonathan Ames (also the name of the title character played by Jason Schwartzman), Bored To Death is more interested in a non-cynical approach to comedy. There’s not a lot of sarcasm or meta-commentary that is the mark of much of current programming, especially comedic programming. Instead, the series plays the ridiculous completely straight and while it can take some time to fully get invested, the series only gets better as the season goes on.
As Bored To Death begins, Jonathan’s girlfriend, Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), is breaking up with him and moving out of their apartment. As the moving truck is loaded and ready to leave, he begs her to stay and her reaction perfectly sets up Jonathan’s character. She is not surprised that he would wait until the last possible moment to ask her to stay, yet he is still unwilling to make any concessions (she wants him to quit drinking and smoking pot). Schwartzman is excellent at playing Jonathan’s self-centered depression and difficulty in letting go. After wallowing and rediscovering his collection of classic detective novels, Jonathan impulsively decides to place an ad on Craigslist listing himself as an unlicensed private detective for hire. His spontaneous decision immediately lands him his first client and his double life begins.
Jonathan’s work as a detective goes just as one would expect. He’s bumbling and inept, and at times he identifies more with his clients than he should. It’s Jonathan’s well meaning self-involvement that is the key to his success as a detective. While it may not seem that way initially, it eventually becomes clear that for all of the over-the-top approaches he takes, he really is interested in helping people.
Though Jonathan is moonlighting as a detective, he is actually a writer. He’s working on his second novel and also works as a freelance journalist for a magazine run by his boss and friend, George Christopher (Ted Danson). His working dynamic with George is based on a mix of fear and a strange co-dependence that shifts into an unlikely friendship. Schwartzman and Danson are especially great together. Danson’s George is successful and well-off, but he’s bored and therein lies the reason for many of the ridiculous situations that he and Jonathan repeatedly find themselves in.
In addition to Jonathan’s relationship with George, his best friend, cartoonist Ray (Zack Galifianakis), serves as a source for many of the series’ funniest moments. The rapport between Ray and Jonathan is particularly effective because they seem mismatched as friends, but their bond, is yet another co-dependent relationship in his life. Ray’s relationship with his girlfriend, Leah (Heather Burns), is frequently played for laughs as they are equally mismatched in maturity, although a little nuance would be a welcome addition to their dynamic.
Part of the problem with the first few episodes of the series is that the tone seemed somewhat off initially. It was unclear if certain things were being played for laughs or if the viewer was supposed to take them seriously. As the series only runs for eight half-hour episodes, the fact that it takes some time to really get a handle on it, works against it. Additionally, the mysteries at the core of Jonathan’s cases often had obvious and quickly solvable resolutions. However, as the series goes on the show settles into itself a little better and feels much looser and well-plotted than it started out.
One of Bored To Death’s biggest strengths lies in its great cast, as well as its excellent use of guest stars. Whether its Kristen Wiig as a paranoid client who drinks too much, or Bebe Neuwirth as Jonathan’s editor, or Oliver Platt as George’s rival, they’re woven into the show expertly without really making a point to call attention to them. Unfortunately, if any characters do get short shrift in Bored To Death it’s the women. Suzanne and Leah are both the long-suffering romantic counterparts to Jonathan and Ray and they are only really used as it relates to the two men. There seemed to be an inching towards better characterizations for them by the end of the first season, so hopefully the second season offers a more fleshed out depiction of the two.
Bored To Death works despite its flaws because it strikes a balance between its obvious love for noir mystery and the real affection it has for its characters. For all the setup in Jonathan’s cases, at its heart the series is about his relationships, unconventional though they may be, and Schwartzman shines in making them all believable. While it may have taken a few episodes, Bored To Death eventually finds its way and in turn, offers an entertaining original comedy that’s just off-center enough to work.
There are several special features on the DVD, including deleted scenes, commentaries, and various featurettes. The deleted scenes are especially interesting as they often offer a different approach to a scene already in the episode as opposed to an extra scene.