[11 October 2011]
Like its brother of the big screen, television is an enormously collaborative medium. While some shows are very capably run by departmental line cooks, others require a more authorial hand to guide all facets of the show. It’s no secret that Bored to Death creator, writer, and producer Jonathan Ames fashions his series as the latter, and the resulting consistent voice and matching particular content come together to make a unified comedy with morals.
Bored to Death is the story of three gentlemen navigating the first world problems of high culture. Jason Schwartzman plays a fictionalized portrait of Jonathan Ames, an unemployed novelist who turns to amateur detective work to pay the bills. The New York neo-noir balances Ames’s episodic cases and the serial stories of Ames and his pals George Christopher (Ted Danson), a distinguished columnist for a high-brow magazine, and Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis), a rising graphic novelist. The three actors share incredible chemistry as they struggle with success, failure, and substance abuse.
Along with the hilarious comedic threesome, the most outstanding aspect of Bored to Death is its voice. As one would expect a sophisticate to write the minds of three sophisticated characters, the leads are very intellectual and literate, making Nabokov, Hemingway, and Wilde references during a Zip car hijacking, or pondering New Yorker caption contests while investigating an S&M sex dungeon. Though not for everyone, this cultured voice is incredibly refreshing and inherently flattering to those who understand them, as opposed to the grating least common denominator comedy of popular network sitcoms.
Though the voice is that of a literate journalist, which creates a universe of matching tone, the action of the series flows quite colloquially. But that’s the beauty of it – half hour sitcoms aren’t supposed to be convoluted. Audiences secretly love predictability and tropes, and their existence is in part because they are the closest stories to our own lives. Where other sitcoms go wrong is illustrating these stories with typical characters, which is the opposite of relatable. The stories of our lives may be average, but the people who populate them are complex. Bored to Death capitalizes on this by coating the core in our own literacy and high culture scenery, entirely disguising its simple inner workings from the viewer.
The show manages to address very serious issues while staying consistently funny, by using impeccable pacing of the dramatic and the comedic, and the narrative and the interpersonal. A technique commonly used is a jarring switch from one aspect to the next, leading to thoughts like, “How could he think about something like that in a time like this?” For example, Jonathan, held at gunpoint, has to call George for ransom money, but George interrupts him with bad news from his doctor. The structure of the two friends and two criminals sharing sympathetic cancer stories in the midst of a kidnapping is the sort of golden situation that enables Bored to Death to ambitiously be both the philosopher and the comedian.
The final ingredient to the Bored to Death recipe is a combination of intelligent and low-brow humor. Bored to Death is a comedic vessel for Danson’s dreamy lush, Schwartzman’s polite and withheld deadpan, and Galifianakis’s lewd manic depressiveness, and like the contrast of narrative elements and genre tones, the pacing of contrast between the comedic personalities is what defines the series.
This second season is as strong as they come, and in addition to the excellent episodes, the DVD collection includes plenty of valuable features. Most enjoyable are the short “Inside the Episodes” interview with creator Jonathan Ames, which were entertaining, informative, and even enlightening to the television writing process. There are only a few audio commentaries, and Ames, Schwartzman, and Danson (Galifianakis not in attendance) share so many laughs that they almost forget entirely to comment on the episodes. Making up for his commentary absence, a small selection of Galifianakis’s cut alternate lines are short and amusing.
Ames and his staff have crafted a rhythm of familiarity, but by the time it’s transposed into its high-class world, paced, and delivered by three incredible comedic actors, Bored to Death becomes a hardly recognizable, but mysteriously comfortable sitcom.