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On the Run: Bored to Death

On and on it trundles, and the busier it gets the duller it is.

Bored to Death: Season Two
Photo: HBO

There are 2.5 million people in Brooklyn. 1.1 million people nationwide tuned in to season one of Bored to Death, but it’s hard not to suspect most of them were in the show’s heartland. With those built-in numbers (there’s nothing a particular kind of white twenty/thirtysomething Brooklynite loves more than celebrating themselves in the ostensible name of community), there’s no reason Bored to Death couldn’t have rolled along for a good long time pandering solely to the interests of a small coterie of people who think jokes about brownstones are funny.

Bored to Death wasn’t anyone’s idea of a great show; the conceit of a struggling writer turned private eye didn’t go anywhere in particular, and Jonathan Ames has zero range or insight. But that proved to be zero problem. Instead, Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis sat around in various configurations and talked shit, which is all you really need if you like those actors. Schwartzman basically revisited I Heart Huckabees (all nervous twitches and sexual fear), Galifianakis glowered through his beard to compensate for his insecurities and Danson—finally freed from the constraints of network television and able to let his not-so-inner misanthrope loose—walked around saying things like “Men face reality, women don’t. That’s why men need to drink.” It was all highly enjoyable.

No more; there will be plot for everyone now, more than enough to keep Wikipedia’s synopsizers busy. The short version of what awaits should you tune in (four episodes were available for preview out of the second season’s eight episode run) is that Stuff Is Happening, and it won’t stop for a minute. HBO, god bless ‘em, has had as much influence on the contemporary, much discussed Golden Age of TV as anyone, and for The Wire I’m eternally grateful. However: not everything has to be a serial, a lesson no one over there seems to grasp. (Or, to pose the question differently: how is The Life and Times of Tim, HBO’s other sharp series of skits on life among twentysomething Brooklynites, elevated by its now-has-a-girlfriend-now-he-doesn’t plot? Oh right, because it takes up like two minutes of every episode.)

So having turned Entourage into the world’s longest-running, least consequential male-soap-opera-plus-tits ever, Bored to Death has now been retooled into a ceaseless string of incident. That’d be OK if Jonathan Ames could plot worth a shit, but he can’t: genre tropes are merely a way for him to have people talk about his favorite subject, which is his sex life. But since not everyone can have such dramatic sexual incidents week in and week out, that means everyone has to talk about transvestites and dominatrixes and stupid burlesque shows all the time. Hangout time has been drastically curtailed; playtime’s over, and the show wants some ratings and it’ll use all the faux crises that can be dug up. It’s still kind of chuckleworthy, but the small pleasures are harder to sift for.

Those who don’t want any spoilers at all may want to stop here. Watch it anyway, maybe they’ll chill out if they make it to a third season, and Danson’s always worth a look.

OK, here’s the problem: In the first episode, Schwartzman (for reasons too stupid to get into) has to run out of a dominatrix dungeon in a head-to-toe black costume that looks like a Kick-Ass reject and jog what seems to be at least 40 blocks to the safety of Ted Danson’s office. This is one of the grossest violations of NYC geographical reality since those tools in Cloverfield made much the same trek through the subway tunnels in no time; it’s hot out there, and he’s running nonstop in full leather without slowing down, losing breath or just passing out from overheating. That’s a distressing turn of events for a show that normally uses accurate depictions of what route was taken on a subway map for dissolves, and the cartoonish “sexuality” is just grating. Oh look, he looks like a stupid ninja! Sex makes us look silly! LOFL.

It’s problematic in a larger sense because what made Bored to Death tick, cast charisma aside, was the groundedness of its jokes, to such an extent that it was never clear why someone outside the five boroughs would ever want to watch. Jokes about a pot-smoking vegan flake aren’t funny; they’re just a well-worn stereotype. But if that same stoner works at the Park Slope Food Coop (home of notoriously anal-retentive, self-righteous types who believe buying fresh fennel is a moral imperative) and starts ranting about how the privacy of their members is too important for bribery, now we have a joke. That’s the first season though: now said vegan is just Schwartzman’s annoyingly helium-voiced girlfriend (Jenny Slate, whose uncompromising approach to the part is theoretically admirable if plausibly grating), which leads to further drama, which leads to time spent away from all the bullshitting and more time watching Ames’ version of Modern Relationships. Which, frankly, who gives a shit, and anyway Ames can’t write for women: Slate’s as annoying an airhead as Ames’ first-season gal was a nagging, no-fun shrew.

There’s more, of course: there’s cancer and breakups and recurring overarching plots that lead to Schwartzman being dangled over the Gowanus. And yes, it’s funny that he doesn’t want to be dumped into that filthy source of gonorrhea (local jokes always win), but the idea that the show needs that much plot is a misjudgment. As usual, HBO keeps its cast in-house, so that anyone who wondered what it’d be like to watch The Wire’s Herc mock someone for liking transsexuals will be gratified. The core cast’s been diluted, and more screen time has been awarded to what were formerly bit players, most notably Oliver Platt (yay!) and John Hodgman (boo!). There’s a stupid adultery bit that pays inevitable homage to Blue Velvet, with Schartzman hiding in the closet; I presume that movie plays on a loop Saturday nights in the Ames household, but that’s one seriously worn out reference for the rest of us.

On and on it trundles, and the busier it gets the duller it is. The show can survive a lot, but HBO apparently is intent on smothering everything in incident, no matter how inconsequential. Hopefully next season everyone will chill out and go back to just sitting around, smoking pot and digressing on their personal failures. Until then, they’re on the run.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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