How slight can a sitcom be before it just dissolves completely? Author, aspiring boxer, and New York rapscallion Jonathan Ames seems to have set out to make Bored to Death in answer to that question. Formed in the mold of the same de-laugh-tracked, multi-camera comedies HBO has been releasing since it entered the arena of originally produced content, like The Larry Sanders Show and Dream On, Bored to Death is happy to appear to be a near-insubstantial wisp of TV, looking to make no large, unique, post-post-whatever statements, seeming to realize that no HBO viewer in this day and age is going to be alarmed by the sight of penises and breasts, or the sound of F-words, but makes a point of including such things anyhow, in a “when in Rome” way of meeting what’s expected.
That’s not a criticism—quite the opposite, in fact. As head writer and showrunner (and naming the protagonist after himself), Ames achieves a consistent tone of nonchalance across a considerable array of competing dramatic and comic material—which is no mean feat. In its second season, the show deals with some weighty dramatic stuff, mostly in George’s (Ted Danson) realm, as he tries to balance a grim medical diagnosis with radical, suffocating changes at work (the magazine he’s called home for 20 years has been acquired, razed, and reshaped by a Koch Brothers/Walden Media-like, fundamentalist Christian behemoth of anti-Obama capital and will), but Ames and his small team of directors and staff writers manage to keep George’s subplots within the same tonal range as the much sillier scenes in which Jonathan (Jason Schwartzman) bullshits his way into an S&M dungeon, or aspiring cartoonist Ray (Zach Galifianakis) is chased by a dognapper.
The weighty stuff isn’t especially weighty, nor is the screwball material especially screwy. Regardless of circumstances, Ames is reluctant to use block letters, opting instead for the what only looks like the easy road, a kind of mellow acquiescence to pro-forma sitcom structures and subplots, the better to fill in the cookie cutters with his own, more personalized vision of the metropolis. The result, happily, is a kind of Hawksian hangout version of New York City (mostly Brooklyn, northwest quadrant), where anything weird (a girl who likes elf ears, an equestrian cop who likes leather) is all right and not all that weird anyway, and the only substantial code is loyalty among friends. Structurally, it’s a lot of old hat, but its attitude is what distinguishes it from the main boulevard. It’s the kind of show that’s seen all five seasons of The Wire, was duly impressed, but won’t lord it over you if you haven’t seen it, or tried it but couldn’t get into it. In a way, that in itself is something new, and necessary: a world where hipsters, arrested man-children, and the cultural (but not the power/money) elite are a force for good, not evil.
HBO’s DVD release divides the eight-episode season into two platters, so as not to overtax the format’s capabilities; it amounts to one short-ish feature film per disc. For a show that tries hard not to be noticed for its formal characteristics, Bored to Death finds itself bathed in almost every kind of light imaginable in the Greater New York Metropolitan Area, from breakfast-hour New Jersey to the Gowanus Canal at midnight, to an overgrown, off-path clearing in Prospect Park. Night scenes are a touch on the shallow side, as far as tonal range goes, but brighter scenes (anything day, Jonathan’s night class, George’s office, the Brooklyn Comic Con) are pleasingly varied. The show doesn’t ask for much with regard to acoustics, either, but what’s here is choice, and kept within a modest middle range: an eclectic, Carroll Gardens-y soundtrack featuring Melpo Mene, Yo La Tengo, and the like.
Strictly routine. Jonathan Ames assembled a small, tight cast and crew, so the audio commentaries, which are pretty nice, often feature the same names across a number of episodes. There are some outtakes and behind-the-scenes stuff, nothing to write home about.
A DVD package that seems not to want to be noticed, by a show that was made more or less in the same spirit. Ignore its modesty: Bored to Death has plenty going for it.