The fact that there are only eight episodes in the first season of Bored to Death, novelist and would-be raconteur Jonathan Ames’s attempt at a quasi-Austerian comedy, suggests that at one point he was determined to not overstay his welcome by prematurely driving his first TV show’s central conceit into the ground. If only. Ames’s style of pseudo-autobiographical pulp is amiable enough, full of love for formula storytelling and a passing understanding of the fine line between self-deprecation and self-love, but beyond that, Bored to Death is just a fun idea poorly executed by a precocious young artist that doesn’t know how to turn dime-novel plots into sitcom material.
Like how Paul Auster inserted himself into The New York Trilogy as a protagonist, Ames assumes the starring role in Bored to Death. Jason Schwartzman plays him—a blocked novelist getting over a bad breakup by moonlighting as a private detective. Like any good private dick, Ames has a regular stable of friends he turns to for help in his semi-professional career: his fretful, petulant boss George Christopher (Ted Danson), who spends his days as the editor of Edition, a New York Magazine knockoff; and limp-dick, out-of-work comic book artist Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis).
True to convention, the trio only works together disparately at first, collaborating in pairs to start, then later coming together as a unified group. At that point, the series stops making fast-and-loose Chandler-esque framing devices the primary focus and tentatively starts to foreground the men’s respective women troubles (in short: none of them are getting any). Which is great, considering how tiresome it is to watch several of Ames’s clients either give him free council on how to get his girlfriend back or hear Schwartzman chirrup that tail jobs and missing sisters all remind him of his ex. Too bad it takes five episodes for that team dynamic to take control of the show’s meandering, over-arching plot.
Bored to Death’s listless, seat-of-the-pants sense of humor is so frustrating because it reveals how little of the show’s charms are dependent on Ames’s scripts (Ames wrote half of the show’s screenplays by himself and co-wrote the other half). Ames can poke fun of pseudo-bohemian white people with the best of them (“Like a buff Samuel Beckett” is a particularly vivid bit of meaningless, pseudo-intellectual banter), but apart from some great drawing-room barbs (like “Yes, I want to hear the truth. As long as it’s not boring”), Ames’s show is mostly undistinguished as a self-described “noir-otic” comedy—on its own terms, at least.
What really makes Bored to Death a fun work in progress is its stellar cast. Schwartzman, Danson, and Galifianakis all hit their marks and have great bromantic chemistry: a stoned stakeout in “The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer” is especially satisfying thanks to the breezy back-and-forth between Danson and Galifianakis. And while Galifianakis plays the most sympathetic guy on the show (he’s the only lower-middle-class one among them, so, unlike Jonathan or George, he doesn’t have the luxury of being tired of his cushy life, mostly because of his nag of a wife), Schwartzman turns in the most surprisingly deft comic performance in the bunch. A scene in “The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer” where he smirks, “I had a really nice time with you, but I’m holdin’ all the cards here,” while crossing his legs to cover up his tighty whities displays the actor’s knack for slapstick that somehow I’d completely missed until Bored to Death. Ames is a wisp of a role, too, making Schwartzman’s remarkable performance that much more impressive for its subtle accomplishments.
For a show that doesn’t have an especially sophisticated aesthetic, Bored to Death features markedly crisp and well-blocked-off on-location footage. Granted, the show was almost entirely filmed in Brooklyn, so shooting conditions weren’t exactly rough, but still: There’s something to be said about the show’s capable use of unambitious and mostly utilitarian pans and static shots that incorporate two, even three actors in each frame. I might be overpraising the show’s crew for their due diligence because slapstick and comedy of any kind works best when we can see as much of what’s going on in a frame as possible, as opposed to when close-ups are overused past the point of credulity and sanity. The point is, it’s nice to see—and hear: Bored to Death has a very clean, layered soundtrack of background noises, dialogue and non-diegetic, hipster-approved music—a comedy that can look good without really trying to.
The extras available on this DVD set are only as sustainable as your inherent fascination with Jonathan Ames’s mystique. The deleted scenes are mostly reworked versions of sequences that are already in the show. The audio commentaries are mostly idle annotations of who’s who in each episode that devolve into a lot of mutual back-slapping (on working with comedian Todd Barry: "I had him in mind to play a brain-addled blackmailer…I don’t meant to say that about Todd in a bad way.") The behind-the-scenes featurette is your standard blasé promo. And the "Jonathan Ames’s Brooklyn" feature is a huge missed opportunity. Ames and Jason Schwartzman pal around Brooklyn at the various sights where they shot the show, expecting Ames to come up with some hilarious anecdotes about each spot and only really coming up with functional, gruel-thin factoids about the area (did you know that Coney Island is right by Brighton Beach? Because now you do!).
Bored to Death’s great comedic cast makes undistinguished material well worth holding out for.