Jonathan Ames is a novelist I must embarrassingly confess ignorance of; my entire previous exposure to his work was the recent film The Extra Man, and that's an introduction that no one deserves. The HBO series he created and co-wrote, Bored to Death, is a far more successful fusion of the literary and the absurd, bringing a distinctively modern sensibility to its throwback subject matter.
The show's key line comes in the first episode. Ames's alter ego, who shares his name and is played by Jason Schwartzman, is in a bathroom stall at a swank event, sharing some pot with his friend and sometimes employer, magazine editor George Christopher (Ted Danson). "God, I'm bored," George laments. "Death by a thousand dull conversations." Jonathan, a novelist, is bored too--and depressed, as the first episode begins with his girlfriend, the lovely Suzanne (a charming Olivia Thirlby), moving out of their shared apartment. On a lark, he goes on Craigslist and puts up an ad as an unlicensed private eye; he soon finds himself moonlighting as the "Craigslist detective," occasionally enlisting the help of George or his sex-obsessed cartoonist buddy Ray (Zach Galifianakis).
The series is set and shot in Ames's home turf of Brooklyn, and employs an intellectual-cum-hipster sensibility quite specific to that borough; it's a world of writers and artists and yoga classes and coffee shops and food co-ops and "radical vegans" and bars, lots and lots of bars. By extension, it's also a matter-of-fact portrayal of pot culture--when Jonathan meets a fellow smoker (Jenny Slate), she explains a new piece of paraphernalia by explaining, "It's what Woody Harrelson uses."
As Ames's stand-in, Schwartzman is spot-on; the role isn't a tremendous stretch from his screen work, but he finds the right mix of his existing persona and the author's neurosis. Some have complained that we may be reaching a saturation point with the suddenly-busy Galifianakis, but I'm not one of them; having followed, for years, his stand-up sets as the heir apparent to Andy Kaufman, it's a thrill to see him working this steadily, and in so many interesting projects. His Ray is equal parts regular guy and insane person, trying his best to avoid a day job, do his comics, and make his lady Leah (Heather Burns) happy. "Tell me about it man, women are tough," goes a typical line. "Leah's making me get a colonic tomorrow." And Ted Danson, who seems to be enjoying a late-career renaissance these days, is just fabulous as George, the sophisticated publishing success with a dash of the hedonist about him (think Graydon Carter with a splash of George Plimpton). He's high-strung, wise, and funny as hell.
The series also utilizes several faces familiar from the New York comedy, stage, and literary scene (many of whom also popped up on the similarly Brooklyn-centric Flight of the Conchords). John Hodgman appears in a couple of episodes, Todd Barry turns up the sleazeball energy, and Kristen Wiig is wonderfully unhinged; Samantha Bee, Sarah Vowell, Bebe Neuwirth, and a wonderfully wormy Oliver Platt also make memorable appearances. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch may be the show's best guest star to date, however; he brings the full force his weirdo energy, and his closing scene, circling Jonathan on a bicycle in a huge, empty warehouse, provides one of the show's most indelible images.
Presumably by design, the three main characters don't share scenes until all the way in episode six; the first five episodes vividly paint Jonathan's contrasting worlds (George's Manhattan, a bastion of money and society, and Ray's Brooklyn, where things are a little more low-rent and low-key). The clash of those worlds results in the season's best episode, which ingeniously balances Jonathan's interactions with a Craigslist blackmailer with Danson and Galifianakis getting high in the car, shooting the shit and playing with their new high-tech gadgets. I can't think of two performers with seemingly less in common than these two, and yet they're somehow a perfect fit.
Some of the earlier episodes are hit-and-miss, but once the show hits its stride with that story, it's full steam ahead; the season-ending story arc (concerning a boxing challenge from Platt to Danson) is funny in the predictable ways--these are not three guys you're used to seeing in a training montage--but it also serves as a clever way to give the meandering show some drive and tie up the loose ends, as well as providing a note of warmth and grace in the closing scene.
Bored to Death: The Complete First Season is a mere eight episodes long, so the show fits easily on two discs, with four episodes on each.
The anamorphic widescreen image is shockingly mediocre, with digital noise and artifacts particularly egregious. Primarily in bar scenes and other dim, nighttime environments, but even in clear, well-lit scenes, the image has a thick, rather ugly haze over it; it's surprising to see such a recent show sporting such a shoddy, noisy picture. Daytime exterior scenes are somewhat better, but even then the skin tones are frequently and noticeably washed out. Overall, kind of a lousy transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track, on the other hand, is pretty good. There's not a hell of a lot of separation, though the occasional "action scenes" (and there's nothing quite like a Jason Schwartzman-Zach Galifianakis action scene) gives the rear channels a boost. Center channel dialogue is clean and audible; the moody music is nicely mixed.
The disc also includes a French Dolby Digital 5.1 channel and a Spanish 2.0 stereo mix, in addition to English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Series writer/creator Jonathan Ames, actor Jason Schwartzman, and a rotation of the show's directors contribute Audio Commentaries for three episodes; a fourth features Ames, Schwartzman, and actor Ted Danson. The tracks are good; Ames and Schwartzman have a nice, dry chemistry, and their commentaries are smart and funny. The first disc also includes two Deleted Scenes (4:16 total), one each from the third and fourth episodes--though actually, the latter is an alternate version of the opening scene, with a smaller cast. It also includes a Series Index, which is nothing more than an episode list.
The rest of the special features are on disc two. "The Making of Bored to Death (19:56) is a fairly standard behind-the-scenes featurette, with cast and crew sound bites, on-set footage, and show clips. It's pretty shallow stuff, though there are enough funny folks involved to make for some amusing interview clips. "Jonathan Ames's Brooklyn" (12:31) is a guided tour of the show's centerpiece borough and its locations, conducted by Ames and Schwartzman, intercut with corresponding clips. And there are two more Deleted Scenes for episode eight (2:52); there's a good (and probably important) scene with his agent, and then a bit of raw footage of Platt goofing off in his corner during the climactic bout.
Bored to Death is a private eye story positioned squarely at the intersection of legitimate tribute and cock-eyed parody, somewhat in the style of Altman's The Long Goodbye, though not quite up to that standard (yet). It's a witty, literate, and enjoyable show, and if they keep putting its three leads together, the next season should really be something.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.