Yay, New TV! (In Theory) – Part 1: HBO’s ‘Bored To Death’
The pilot episode of “Bored to Death,” HBO’s new comedy/detective show starring Jason Schwartzman, is like being winked at by a stranger: I feel like I’m supposed to already “get” the show’s humor, even though it is completely unfamiliar material I’ve been subjected to.
This feeling starts with the fact that the lead character is an author named Jonathan Ames, after the author (and series creator), Jonathan Ames, leading me to feel like I was supposed to have done some reading beforehand, but was absent from HBO-class when it was assigned.
Ames-the-character’s girlfriend has just left him on account of he drinks too much white wine and smokes too much weed and never takes any initiative, and so he whiles away the following afternoon whining about this to pretty much anyone who will listen – except no one seems to give a shit.
I think this is supposed to be a running gag, except it’s played on the audience as well. We know nothing about Ames-the-character beyond his chief trait of whining to everyone about how his girlfriend has left him on account of the wine/weed situation. That’s all we’ve got to go on with him. So we’re pretty much in the same boat as the strangers he decides to unload on.
But even the people he knows don’t care. His artist-friend (Zach Galifianakis) quickly shifts the conversation to focus on his own relationship woes. And his boss (Ted Danson) just wants to gripe about how Ames has plagiarized him while they smoke weed in a bathroom stall.
(Another case where I feel like we’re already supposed to already know Ames’ world: I have no idea who the hell Danson’s supposed to be, or what he does. He is apparently an older and very successful writer, or maybe a publisher, or…? It feels very much like he’s based on a guy we’re supposed to know about. But even Danson’s general awesomeness can’t turn that into characterization.)
This might be funny in a different setting, but something about a youngish-writer living in a massive but empty apartment, who apparently has all the time in the world to bounce down to a coffee shop to talk to his buddy…you can’t help but see it as kinda masturbatory. Boo-hoo, I’m a writer who can afford to live in a spacious Brooklyn apartment. Yeah, sucks to be you, guy.
I haven’t even gotten to the actual premise of the thing yet: Ames, in a fit of boredom after reading an old Chandler novel, posts an ad on CraigsList as an “unlicensed detective” – and quickly gets a missing-persons case. This is a premise where a show’s tone and pacing is crucial, and the point where “Bored to Death” just collapses.
SPOILERS! OMG! SHUT UP I DIDN’T WANT TO KNOW You Totally Did, Don’t Lie.
Following the Chandler playbook (asking the client for a lead, and then following up on it, even though, logically, if the client already HAD a lead, they probably wouldn’t need a P.I. in the first place), he tracks the missing girl down to her meth-head ex’s hotel room, dives into the bathroom to avoid a physical confrontation, and then…whines to the guy about how his girlfriend just left him.
Which MIGHT be funny – except the girl actually is tied to the bed with a gag in her mouth. So when Ames comes out and offers the ex a joint (since it’s “healthier” than meth), and does nothing to help the girl, he ends up adding “creepy” and “dangerously negligent” to his previous trait-list of whiny and self-absorbed.
There is a way that this material could be played as funny – and it’s called “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” In fact, just prior to watching “Bored to Death,” I re-watched a “Sunny” episode where the characters kidnap a writer who gave their bar a bad review and duct-tape him to a chair. And it’s HILARIOUS. Because there’s never a point in that show where we’re asked to sympathize with the characters; from the start, it’s about people so insanely vain that they are only barely aware that they’ve engaged in a serious crime – and only to the extent that they worry over how it might be reflect in the next review.
Because “Bored to Death” is filmed much the same way as any other single-camera show, without any ramped-up pacing or quirky beats to take it out of realism territory (the public-domain music cues in “Always Sunny” do some great work there, for example), it actually looks and feels a lot more like a drama about a fucked-up guy who can’t see past his own navel – except it’s lacking in any real emotion, so it would fail even if that was the case.
All this said? I want to see the second episode – there’s a chance that, now that the premise is locked in, the second episode can actually use it to be funny, or at least somehow poignant. If it can only get its head out of its own self-important ass long enough to pull it off.