Yay, New TV! (In Theory) – Part 1: HBO’s ‘Bored To Death’

Posted: September 22, 2009 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

Bored to death 1The 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.

bored to death 2I 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.


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.

  1. braak says:

    Ted Danson is probably supposed to be George Plimpton, I think, famous for writing for The Paris Review and also playing baseball, and whose middle name was also “Ames” but is not related to Jonathon Ames.

  2. Moff says:

    I’m not all that familiar with Jonathan Ames’s work, but based on the two stories he wrote for Spin while I was there, his shtick is pretty much: I’m a weird writer guy. I can’t help being a weird writer guy. But being a weird writer guy makes me so uncomfortable and awkward. Now I will write about the awkwardness of being a weird writer guy.

    It actually made for a couple of great articles — one on Marilyn Manson, one on Lenny Kravitz — despite their being just as much about him as they were about the subjects. But it’s a fine line between “quirky weirdo” and “self-aggrandizing jackass,” and yeah, “sympathetic” is not a word I would ever apply to his work.

  3. braak says:

    Also: he drinks white wine?

    Fucking sissy.

  4. Amanda says:

    Sadness. I wanted this to be a good show that maybe I could happen across at some point, even though I never wanted to actively plan to watch it or even DVR it……

    But your review is so intelligent and poignant! All you guys write awesome reviews all the time- you don’t just complain about something, but you’re able to figure out what’s missing and thereby justify your opinions. SERIOUSLY- that’s more than any newspaper critic ever does. Why aren’t you ALL professionals?

  5. braak says:

    Moff is a professional. That’s why he doesn’t do reviews for us.

    Hell, I don’t know–but I think that part of the reason you don’t see newspapers with stronger reviews (and that’s me just talking about Philadelphia, here) is that newspapers don’t want critical evaluations. Theaters don’t want critical evaluations, either–they want pleasant book reports that run no danger of sparking controversy or alienating audience members or theater professionals in any way.

    But, who knows? Maybe with a few good reviews at TQP, one or both of us might actually be able to get some dollar work.

    Also: I am going to watch this show anyway, because the pilot is free on iTunes, and I’ll watch anything with Ted Danson in it. I’m not sure why…but I just really like Ted Danson.

  6. braak says:

    –er, just to be clear, I don’t mean to say that Moff isn’t a strong reviewer (because based on some of the stuff of his that I’ve read, he IS a strong reviewer). I just mean that he doesn’t do free work for us because he actually gets paid for his work somewhere else.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    We try. When watching a new show, I try to remember the old saw about how nobody goes out of their way to make a bad show – their intentions are good, right?

    It also helps that I tend to get away from shows BEFORE they become so aggressively bad that all I want to do is savage them in print (Hi there, “Heroes,” how’s your utter pit of suck doing?).

  8. braak says:

    Have now watched the pilot episode of Bored to Death. Thoughts include the following:

    1) The jokes in this show are super, SUPER New Yorky.

    2) Jonathon Ames is not such a great screenwriter. Ted Danson and Zach Gallifinakis are both interesting enough to overcome the script’s deficiencies. Jason Schwartzman, while pretty good, isn’t quite good enough that I don’t notice how lousy the script is.

    3) Agreed, now that the set-up is out of the way, this could, theoretically, be kind of a funny TV show.

    4) I have an idea for a new project for us to work on in our Friday spot.

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    The show did raise a couple questions for me:

    1) Does Jason Schwartzman getsinvited to Owen and Luke Wilson’s family gatherings as an honorary Wilson?

    2) Is there anyone on Earth that readily self-identifies as a “self-hating Jew” who is NOT also a writer living in New York?

  10. braak says:

    1) No. He just shows up and no one notices the difference.

    2) Also no.

  11. Moff says:

    @braak: No worries, your original comment was not received as negative in any way.

    I would probably review more stuff for free if I consumed more stuff. There are so few shows I watch regularly. My main TV staple lately has been catching up with Lost, and that really seems to me like a show people should not review, because what can you say that isn’t a spoiler for someone else? And we go to, like, four movies a year.

    I guess I could review the Internet.

  12. braak says:

    Ha. I was just talking to Jeanine about how I don’t really watch that much television. It just seems like such a hassle to remember when it’s on, and then to make time to sit down and watch it, and not do something else–especially considering the rewards are generally so paltry.

    If it weren’t for my insomnia, I probably wouldn’t watch ANY tv. As it is, I open up Hulu to find something to kill some time with and it’s all just…meh.

  13. V.I.P. Referee says:

    See, I really like Jason Schwartzman and he’s best when his characters are “doing nothing”…just being twitchy, stoner-ish and kind of like Dustin Hoffman. I like him, yet I’m not entirely sure why. His acting is decent enough, but I can’t say it’s exceptional. However, he was excellent as “Max Fischer” in “Rushmore”, so I’m guessing his place of honor was seared into my mind from that reference.

    “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (that anthropological show about tribal life in the exotic land of “Philly”) also popped into my head, while you were describing “Bored to Death”. I thought: “Jason Schwartzman would be excellent in a show where lots of over-privileged characters complain because they don’t realize how great their lives really are and then, some working-class characters try to shake them out of their self-absorption and then…” and then I was reminded of the “…Always Sunny…” episode where a couple of the obnoxiously delusional, privileged characters attempt to apply for welfare and other social programs. It was funny.

    Q. “Is there anyone on Earth that readily self-identifies as a ‘self-hating Jew’ who is NOT also a writer living in New York?”

    A. That depends; doesn’t Woody Allen work from the West Coast, now?

  14. Jeff Holland says:

    I believe these days Woody Allen works in his own magical land, where no one points out stilted dialogue, hackneyed comedy, or just how uncomfortable it makes everyone that Scarlett Johansson is his new “muse.”

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