It's a detective show about an amateur who uses mystery novels as inspiration for his tactics. It stars Jason Schwartzman, with costars Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson. It's on HBO.
Those three things, on paper, look promising. But the problem with Bored To Death, created by writer Jonathan Ames, is that it takes all the worst things about each of those elements, throws in a scruffy indie rock soundtrack, and spits it back out—a show that's certainly not greater than the sum of its parts. I found myself watching "Stockholm Syndrome" wondering, often aloud, why this show wasn't better. And after sifting through my notes for a while, I think Bored To Death needs to make a decision about, well, anything—a visual motif, a verbal tone, a kick-ass director. Someone has to make a choice, any choice.
First there's the matter of the plot, which hops into place so quickly, I felt like I had accidentally fast forwarded past a scene. Schwartzman is Jonathan Ames (ooh!), who in scene one is helping the Israeli movers pack up his girlfriend's stuff from his apartment. Why does he help them do something that should already be painful enough as it is? Because, as one of the movers points out, he's a typical self-hating New York Jew. Then his girlfriend comes out to say goodbye, they kiss for some reason, and she tells him the whole thing could have been avoided if he'd just given up the pot and drinking like she asked. But he's trying, he says, he's just down to white wine. Why white wine? Because it's a "writerly" drink of choice. So he goes inside, alone, cracks open a bottle of wine, looks at an old detective novel, opens his computer, and posts an ad on Craigslist advertising his services as a private detective. Why?
Well, why indeed? That's all the exposition we get, but that's not all the exposition I felt like we needed. The remainder of the episode introduces us viewers to the rest of the cast—he meets with Ray (Galifianakis), his buddy who's in a similarly doomed relationship; his pot-loving boss George (Danson), who I only know is a high profile magazine editor because I read it in Wikipedia—as well as tracks his inaugural foray into the private detectiving world. Ames meets with a client; assures her repeatedly that he knows what he's doing, despite her repeated questioning of the opposite; he spends a lot of money on bribes to track down this guy who kidnapped the client's sister; he learns the guy only did it because the sister was about to break up with him, a situation to which Ames can relate; he relates to the guy; they continue to relate; the police come in and tell Ames to go home. Because we jump right in, the transpiring events don't feel much like a story; there's no narrative hook if this person seemingly dropped out of nowhere. When Ames opens up to the kidnapper about his own failed relationship, there's no rapport established; there's no reasoning behind why he would share this kind of info, just like there was no reasoning behind why he got into the detective world to begin with.
Fine, if that's what it's going to be, at least Ames is hanging around seedy places and dealing with shady characters, right? Real gritty, noir-type shit? Not exactly. When talking to the kidnapper later on, Ames shares that pot didn't help things with his lady. "How can I love if I'm in this fog the whole time?" he asks. But it feels like the whole episode is in a fog. For example, Ames heads to the kidnapper's workplace, a bar, to discover his whereabouts. Ames strolls in and takes a seat, orders a whiskey, and begins questioning the bartender. He slips him a 20 and gets the information he needs, but sits there to finish his whiskey—which he can't get down without coughing. It's a short scene that's not really meant to do anything but advance the plot, and very few lines are spoken. But I'll be damned if I haven't seen a more boring scene in quite some time. There's a lot of silence, but there's no power to the silence if Ames simply sits there, with not even an interesting camera angle backing him up. The entire scene feels disposable and 2-D, like you're watching someone watch an episode of Bored To Death. And it's not the only scene that feels that way.
But even before I saw an episode of this show, I was pumped for Galifianakis and Danson, who I thought would be the show's saving graces. I'll go toe-to-toe with anyone who defends The Hangover as a film (I thought it was pretty bad, and I take comfort in the fact that our own Keith Phipps agrees), but damnit, Galifianakis was brilliant in it. The man's got caustic comic timing; lines that should be dead feel electric with the way he takes them in, filters them, and spits them back out like he's a kid discovering wordplay for the first time. Other than a few golden moments here—my favorite being his posit that therapists are "the heroes of listening"—Galifianakis feels reigned in. He's only in two scenes: In the first, he matches Ames' borderline break-up apathy with some of his own, like he's engaged in a weird verbal mirroring exercise; his second scene contains one nice explosive moment ("I read it in my diary"), but otherwise finds him relegated to the same passive behavior as the first. I've never seen someone confront a girlfriend after a fight with any less vigor. Danson, aka Potfiend McFiendpotOShaunessey, waltzes in to Ames' periphery at a party, asks him for pot, then retires to the bathroom with Ames to talk at a reasonable volume about how important a person he is and take a few puffs from a one-hitter. Wait, no, it should really be called a three-hitter, and we're all allowed to steal that gem from this apparent magazine magnate.
Then he calls later to ask about more pot. Geez, I thought that stuff wasn't addictive. Maybe DARE was right.
Which leads me to the final Bored To Death pre-selling point: It's on HBO. I love HBO. I think they do an amazing job of taking smart, savvy showrunners, attaching killer writers, attracting fringe all-star actors, then getting the fuck out of the way. And occasionally, its shows look and feel unlike anything else on TV. Flight Of The Conchords, Big Love, and Deadwood spring to mind. The point is, Bored To Death is a noir("-otic") comedy starring three beloved actors and dealing ostensibly with the seedy underbelly of New York City. I'm not looking for Brick here, but you can't direct that show with the same non-direction reserved for episodes of Entourage. The show's boring, yes, but really just a huge disappointment.
- It should be noted that the pilot was directed by Alan Taylor, whose credits include The Sopranos and Mad Men (including the pilot). I don't think it's necessarily his fault this pilot felt this way, but rather more big-picture directing/stylistic choices that have Bored To Death feel, in so many ways, prematurely hatched.
- "You don't have cancer." "Not yet."