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"Stockholm Syndrome," "The Alanon Case," "The Case of the Missing Screenplay," "The Case of the Stolen Skateboard," The Case of the Lonely White Dove," "The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer," "The Case of the Stolen Sperm," "Take a Dive"
by Jefferson Robbins With its accomplished but psychologically malformed boy-men, the first season of novelist-screenwriter Jonathan Ames's "Bored To Death" feels like a Judd Apatow joint transplanted to Tom Wolfe's outer boroughs. Its characters all want to be Masters of their particular Universes, but they're either hamstrung by their own neuroses or carting them along like luggage in spite of success. We know we're watching an HBO comedy, though it's often hard to discern where the comedy is supposed to be located. In Woody Allen nebbishism? In misdirection and error? In slapstick? In satirizing the hip, self-satisfied artistes of millennial New York's most fashionable burg? Barring a few episodes that succeed on the other points, the latter feels most likely.
Ames's hero, also named Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), is a Brooklyn novelist stalled on a follow-up to his successful first book. He's freshly scarred by the departure of his girlfriend, Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), who moves out on him yet seems open to reconciliation if he can just pull out of his slough of marijuana and white wine abuse. Good luck to him, with friends like Ray (Zach Galifianakis), a clenched and angry cartoonist, and George (Ted Danson), a Manhattan magazine publisher who's on top of his world but no less lost. Jonathan, already moonlighting as some kind of reporter/publicist for George, advertises himself online as an unlicensed private detective, and soon wins piecework from clients who, like himself, are so fogged-in by self-regard that they can't see the solutions to their own problems. "I'm in your movie, and you're in mine," George tells Jonathan in 1.2, "The Alanon Case." "Two different films. We don't really know each other." That depressing tidbit may harbour the crux of the entire series, dovetailing with the real Ames's assertion, in the pilot episode commentary, that one of his intended themes is "you can be heroic in your way." That is, only in your movie.
Said pilot, "Stockholm Syndrome," is one of the most strained, least funny sitcom launches I've ever witnessed, and beyond the involvement of its name stars, I'm mystified how any HBO executive could look at it and greenlight a series. Stabs at slapstick, especially in the early episodes, are so badly fumbled that you wonder whether the filmmakers have ever actually seen anyone fall down. Along its eight-episode path, "Bored To Death" does wobble into enjoyability--see, for instance, Jim Jarmusch's walk-on in 1.3, "The Case of the Missing Screenplay," or the plan to stake out a sexy extortionist (Trieste Kelly Dunn) in episode 1.6, "The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer." That latter is the episode where Danson, Schwartzman, and Galifianakis are finally allowed to share the frame and let their lost-boy characters ping woozily off each other, and it's fun. Narrative throughline also carries the day, as seeds planted early on (Ray's sperm donations, George's lust for one of his several ex-wives) come to fruition near season's end. But we're also asked to wait for Jonathan to reconcile his writer and detective sides, much as Suzanne is asked to wait for him to act like a man. (That's her only character trait, by the way.) This road has no ending.
"Bored To Death" is a descendant of one of HBO's early successes in the half-hour sitcom format--David Crane and Marta Kauffman's "Dream On," which likewise boasted a publishing-industry protagonist whose inner life and self-image were informed by pop culture. But Martin Tupper, despite his interior vocabulary of TV snippets, had few pretenses. Jonathan's investment in his pulp-detective persona feels superficial, at least to start: he just glances at the cover of a Raymond Chandler paperback and logs onto Craigslist. Some of the attempts to subvert detective tropes are cute; Jonathan can't help spilling his own pain onto his clients and always spends more in bribes and expenses than he takes in. The nemeses he whinges and wheedles at include meth-addled boyfriends, the Russian mafia (sigh...them again), and skate punks. There are multiple brushes with mild gay panic, yet for all Jonathan's moping over women, his most fruitful relationships are with other men. The final episode closes with a burst of male athletic horseplay that mirrors an earlier male-female passage. It's clear which of the two will give him lasting comfort. "I like being delusional," George says. "Me too," Jonathan replies. "We're delusional together."*
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Just in time for the Death of the Hipster, "Bored To Death"'s first season arrives on Blu-ray in some frustrating packaging that needlessly forces you to draw the two-disc box from its sleeve left-handed. Then there's the menu, which recycles the same dialogue bon mots endlessly. I thought Blu-ray would allow for more diversity of menu content, not less. Shot with the ARRI D-21, a HiDef camera known for producing filmlike images (it's also used on the cinematic "Community"), the series' 1.78:1, 1080p transfer maintains a warmth (under DP Vanja Cernjul) typical of HBO productions, but it hums with a low-level noise that grows agitated against greens and greys, and deep blacks swallow up texture. The slinky theme song, written and performed by Schwartzman under his band-project name Coconut Records, fills the soundstage agreeably in DTS-HD MA 5.1, while the series' overall handling of music--Young Marble Giants, Lykke Li, Out Kaiser Cartel and the like, not to mention Stephen Ulrich's score--is generous. Atmospherics like street noise and the rumble of a subway tend to occupy the hind speakers, dialogue and action the front.
Four episodes feature commentaries, each with Ames (writer or co-writer of every episode) and Schwartzman. Three of those yak-tracks include the given episode's director (Alan Taylor, Michael Lehmann, and Adam Bernstein); the last finds Danson joining. They're meetings of chums: Ames was ordinant at Schwartzman's wedding. Most of the talk focuses on how much of his own life and fiction Ames ransacked to create his series, which bits were improv'd (quite a few), and how many words Ames can pronounce backwards (all of them, a trick he's very proud of). Interesting to learn, too, that after he stole his brief but central scene in the pilot, Danson's character was vastly expanded for the series--at the expense of two female roles. The video-based supplements are parked on Disc Two. "Making 'Bored To Death'" (20 mins., HD) is an extremely standard EPK of the type HBO shows between real programming. The most interesting part acquaints us with Dean Haspiel, the artist and basis for Ray's character who also draws the doodles passed off as Ray's in the show and opening credits. "Jonathan Ames' Brooklyn" (12 mins., HD) has the creator and Schwartzman pointing out show locations on a rainy-day walkaround. They talk architecture (the Williamsburg Bank Building is New York's most phallic, Ames asserts) and their putative love of detective films. ("The ultimate one to me is Stolen Kisses," Schwartzman says, "which is a Truffaut film." Yes, that would be his favourite, wouldn't it?) A promo for HBO's Blu-ray output spins up on insertion of Disc One. Originally published: November 22, 2010.
*We don't assign star ratings to TV seasons here at FILM FREAK CENTRAL, as we'd rather leave a series open to a continuum of criticism than offer a definitive stamp of quality. But if I had to grade it, "Bored To Death" is an absolutely mediocre two stars. It's not that it fails at what it sets out to do, or even that it does it poorly. It's just that what it sets out to do isn't really worth a lot of effort in the first place. return