A Terrible Pun about HBO’s Bored to Death which ultimately says more about me than it does the show

New York. Jason Schwartzman. Jonathan Ames. Detective Fiction. Young Marble Giants. I love all of these things. How, then, am I supposed to objectively assess Bored to Death (HBO, Sundays at 9:30), which combines all of them?

Well, I’m not going to. I’m solidly in this show’s corner, and ready to take on all comers.

After an exposition-heavy first five minutes, the show settles into a shaggy groove befitting its subject. After getting dumped by his girlfriend, novelist/journalist Jonathan (Schwartzman) advertises his services as a PI on Craigslist. With a worn copy of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely as his guide, Jonathan heads into Manhattan to solve mysteries.

The early reviews for Bored to Death have been mixed at best, but I think many of the reviewers are either ill-prepared or ill-equipped to deal with the show’s wares. Creator Ames’ sense of humor is far afield from what currently reigns on tv–it’s a version of screwball wit with a velvet aftertaste. And his sense of drama comes from the way our affection toward character “quirks” slowly gives way to the realization that these characters have issues, real intractable ones, and their affectations are simply ways of making these disorders palatable.

Consider, for instance, what we learn about Jonathan from this first episode. He’s a struggling writer, picking up magazine work on the side. Writing defines his life to such an extent that the only real piece of furniture he owns is a desk. His ex-girlfriend tells him that he doesn’t know how to take action, that he’s an addict (pot and wine, but still), and that he hates himself. Jonathan’s response? I’ll play around at being a detective! If this sounds indulgent and childish to you, ding ding ding, you’ve grasped the central dramatic element of this show. Is PI work a way for Jonathan to put his quirks to good use? Is it a form of self therapy? Or is it just an opportunity to partake in more fantasy games and put off his novel?

Jonathan has chosen Farewell, My Lovely as a guidebook, which is fitting, since it’s the Chandler novel that features pot as a major plot point. Philip Marlowe is also an interesting model for Jonathan’s behavior. Chandler portrays Marlowe as a lone white night, navigating a fallen world. In The Big Sleep, Marlowe stares forlornly at an artwork depicting a knight, trying to free a damsel in distress. He remarks that the knight’s as close as he will ever get; the painting keeps him stuck in place. Marlowe’s chivalric endeavors may all be for naught. Marlowe may talk tough, but he’s got a huge soft spot. He’s routinely outsmarted by crooks and femmes fatale. Marlowe is a humorous figure, too, from Elliott Gould’s 70s reinterpretation to the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski.

Jonathan sees himself as a white knight, but is he in a fallen world? That’s up for grabs, but the hints are tantalyzing. Jonathan’s missing person investigation is an honest-to-goodness kidnapping, featuring a sociopathic meth-head. And yet, Jonathan’s able to sympathize with the perpetrator, exchanging drugs and relationship stories. The first episode contrasted a dark and squalid Manhattan (where the mystery of the week takes place) with a cozy, bourgeois Brooklyn full of new mothers and helpful neighbors. Jonathan’s equally uncomfortable in both.

The show’s supporting characters provide subtle contrasts with Jonathan. Ray, his cartoonist friend (played by Zach Galifianakis), share’s some of Jonathan’s quirks, but is less willing to shake up his comfortable artist’s life, and more in touch with his feelings. George (a hilarious Ted Danson), Jonathan’s employer, shares his vices, but can be uncommonly direct and self-possessed about them.

I’m looking forward to Jonathan’s meandering journey. The airy lines, Schwartzman’s physical humor, strong supporting cast, and attention to detail make this well worth watching.

3 Responses to “A Terrible Pun about HBO’s Bored to Death which ultimately says more about me than it does the show”

  1. 1 astroscott September 19, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    I enjoyed the post. The problem with this show is that it’s got so much great talent, it’ll be a disappointment even if it’s just slightly above average.

    • 2 againstacedia September 19, 2009 at 5:32 pm

      I don’t think the show is off to a hot start, but I can see a lot of potential. Given the HBO ‘halo’ that seems to make its shows better as the season progresses, I’m hopeful that some of my suspicions will be confirmed.

  2. 3 Deborah Barlow October 7, 2009 at 6:27 am

    Very smart and very accurate description of the first installment. I am enchanted, even when subsequent episodes have had some saggy passages. All in all, very refreshing and entertaining. Thanks for your excellent review.

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