BORED TO DEATH: Why It’s My Favorite New Show

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I first started watching Bored to Death because I was desperate to fill the “quirky film noir” void in my TV diet since Veronica Mars went off the air in 2007. And the pilot episode seemed to be headed in that vein: we meet a frustrated novelist named Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) just as his girlfriend, Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), is moving out. She is tired of his drinking, his pot smoking and his overall immaturity. Jonathan confirms Suzanne’s decision when they meet for coffee in a later episode and he is only able to articulate why he misses her in terms of concrete material needs: “I’m living like an animal. I have no toilet paper, no food, no toothpaste.”

Suzanne moves out.
Suzanne moves out.

Jonathan’s solution to his heartache and his writer’s block (he cannot write his second novel) is to moonlight as a private detective (he gets the idea after reading some Raymond Chandler). What follows is a series of anti-noir cliches. As Jonathan stakes out his first case we see him standing in the rain in the moonlight, his childish bowlcut dripping onto his khaki trench coat. When he goes to a bar to pump the bartender for information he orders a whisky and promptly chokes on it. “I’m on a white wine regimine,” he explains. And he ends up spending more money on bribing people for information than he makes on his first case. No, Jonanthan is not Sam Spade.

Trying, and failing, to be Sam Spade.
Trying, and failing, to be Sam Spade.

However, after the pilot the series shifted genres. It became less about noir and more about Jonathan and his best friends Ray (Zach Galifianakis), a whiny, infantile comic book artist, and George (Ted Danson), the equally whiny and infantile editor-in-chief of an unnamed New York magazine. In HBO shows about male friendship, like Entourage, there is a clear alpha male (Vincent Chase) and a clear buffoon (Johnny Drama) but no so here. The three male leads in Bored to Death are each buffoonish in their own way. And although Jonathan’s neurotic Jewish character invites comparisons to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, or even further back, to Woody Allen in Manhattan (1979) or Annie Hall (1977), he is somehow more…likeable. Yes he is selfish and self absorbed but it is also clear that he is kind and even moral. After Ray is bullied into getting a colonic and must endure a long subway ride home, Jonathan seems genuinely concerned, offering to massage his friend’s shoulders. Sure, he’s stoned at the time, but he cares…about his friend’s colon.

Jonathan and Ray, post-colonics.
Jonathan and Ray, post-colonics.

As for the women in the series, well, the women aren’t all that important. Or maybe it’s that they’re too important? Jonathan pines for his ex-girlfriend Suzanne, Ray is nagged by current girlfriend Leah (Heather Burns), and George moves from one young conquest to the next (his current fetish is armpit hair). For these men women provide pain, torment and delight, but ultimately these men seek out the company of other men. This is certainly a recipe for misogyny and for  stereotyped female characters, but this doesn’t happen in Bored to Death. Rather, women are a force to be reckoned with: they are inscrutable, independent and appear to function perfectly well without men (except when they need to borrow some sperm). There’s a running joke in the series in which Jonathan and Ray find themselves tripping over trendy baby strollers whenever they want to kvetch together in their favorite coffee shop. By the time they reach their thirties, many men have started families, so for Jonathan and Ray these strollers are a threat, a mystery, a symbol of the responsibility they cannot take on. Indeed, Ray complains that Leah’s children have no respect for him. “They call me fat. And hairy,” he complains. And he is. In this show the men are the problem, not the women.

George and Jonathan enjoy a glass of white wine.
George and Jonathan enjoy a glass of white wine.

So far the reviews for this new show have been tepid. The word “precious” and “self indulgent” have been bandied about. But I don’t see Bored to Death as a Curb-derivative or as a “low-stakes version of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.  Larry David and Woody Allen are so eccentric, so enveloped in their own worlds, that I find them difficult to relate to (and isn’t that part of their appeal?). Here’s the thing: I do find Jonathan relatable.  As one of those “responsible adults” with the baby stroller in the coffee shop I understand and empathize with Jonathan. He’d like to be like me: write his novel, help his ex-girlfriend shop for toilet paper and stop smoking so much pot. But, sometimes I’d like to be like him: to play at being a private detective and have a glass of white wine while standing in the rain in my khaki trench coat.

So am I the only one who loves this show? Share your thoughts below.

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9 thoughts on “BORED TO DEATH: Why It’s My Favorite New Show

    Kelli Marshall said:
    October 14, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Nice! Ever since I watched Ellen DeGeneres interview Jason Schwartzman a few weeks back, I’ve wanted to see this show. But alas, I don’t have HBO. I’m not a fan of Zach Galifianakis. But Ted Danson, yes. Noir detectives, double yes! Will have to wait until the DVD comes out, I suppose… =(

    Annie Petersen said:
    October 15, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    I saw the pilot and was thoroughly unimpressed. But if you say so, I’ll press forward…

    princesscowboy responded:
    October 15, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    I did enjoy the pilot though I do think I enjoyed the show more and more as I got to know the characters (particularly Ted Danson). It does seem like a lot of avid TV watchers that I know are unimpressed with the show. I can’t figure out why. I am completely charmed. Perhaps I am just a neurotic navel-gazer myself who is over identifying with the Johnathan character?

    Randall said:
    October 16, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    After the pilot I talked with my friend Denny about how bland Jason Schwartzman can be. Denny quoted or paraphrased a critic who called Schwartzman a charisma blackhole. We chuckled in agreement.

    Three weeks later, the show and the Schwartz has grown on me. He tends to mope, but (as Amanda writes above) he does have compassion. His weaknesses look awfully familiar too.

    The episodes might need to start building towards something. My sharp-eyed wife noticed something that suggests the episodes are not being run in the originally intended order. Christie saw that–from episode to episode–Schwartzman’s hair goes back and forth between a Beatlesque bowl to a emo droop. Maybe that’s not a bad strategy for a first year program: Let the audience build for a few weeks before bringing in an inter-episode plot.

    Kyle said:
    October 17, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    No, you’re not the only fan. I love it!

    I’m also bothered by Schwartzman’s changing hairdo, but it’s a small distraction in a show this sophisticated. In fact, it’s done something I never thought it could do, which is make me type this sentence: Ted Danson gives a truly remarkable performance.

    princesscowboy responded:
    October 17, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    I also LOVE Ted Danson in this show! And Randall, I also noticed the changing haircuts. I wonder why they’re shuffling the episodes around?

    Randall said:
    October 18, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I just remember something. In the 10/11 show, Shwartzman’s character mentions that he had solved his first two cases, so maybe the shows are in their originally intended order. The shifting hair, however, continues to puzzle.

    Maybe I’m thinking too much about this.

    twynne105 said:
    October 19, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    I haven’t met anyone else who likes (or has even watched) this show, so I’m glad to read this. Personally, I love it but admit that it’s not an “A”. I feel like it needs a little while to hit its stride….but I’m happy to go along for the ride in the mean time.

    Denny said:
    November 3, 2009 at 10:39 am

    The show is amiable enough, and though I was originally down on Schwartzman, who I feel hasn’t been particularly interesting since RUSHMORE, with successive episodes, he and his character became more interesting. I also dig Zach G. and Ted Danson. Nonetheless, while the show has a rambling shaggy dog appeal, that could ultimately be a drawback. They putz around a lot and solve mysteries despite themselves rather than because of any real prowess or skills they have. As my parents used to tell me in my old slacker days, “When are you gonna stop farting around and do something productive?”

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