Thursday, April 7, 2011

Seasons in the Sun: Bored to Death - Season 1

Basic Info:
Bored to Death - Season 1
8 Episodes
Originally aired Fall 2009, HBO

First off, we should confront the elephant in the room: Bored to Death had every chance of being a show I'd hate. In my mind, there's a fine, fine line between Quirky and Trying Too Hard, and I could imagine a scenario where, because of such mercurial factors as my mood on a given day, or one or two minor choices by the show's creative team, I'd have gone from enjoying the show and buying into its strange little world (which I did) to despising the show's hipstery pretensions (which I did not). For the first few episodes, I wasn't sure which way I would lean. Yet, in spite of Bored's frequent use of one of my trigger subjects, stoner humor, I ended up being swept along by its enjoyable premise, fine central performances, and sharply-written dialog.

Jonathan Ames (named after the show's creator/writer/producer and played by Jason Schwartzman) is a somewhat lost 30-year-old novelist who is creatively stymied with work on his second novel. He probably drinks and smokes too much for his own good -- though he manages to remain an amiable pothead/alcoholic instead of one of those slovenly, destructive types. Instead of writing his book, he spends most of time hanging out with his cartoonist friend/fellow stoner Ray (Zach Galifianakis), and playing Man Friday to his wealthy magazine editor boss, George (Ted Danson). When Jonathan fails to clean up his act and get his novel in gear, his girlfriend Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby) makes good on her threat and leaves him. Jonathan then posts an ad on Craigslist, advertising his services as an "unlicensed private investigator" for hire. Whether he does this because he needs writing material, or because he wants to get Suzanne back, or simply because it seemed like a thing to do, even he probably doesn't know. The results, as far as the first season is concerned, are eight episodes of bizarre "cases" for Jonathan to solve while navigating the twin wrecks of his creative and love lives.

It's pretty clear from the get-go that Jonathan is totally in over his head. Most of his ideas about being a detective come from noir movies and pulp fiction -- he even carries a copy of Chandler's Farewell My Lovely around when he heads out on cases -- and his questions for clients, informants, and suspects seem driven more by child-like (or perhaps writerly) curiosity rather than the desire to get facts about the case. Schwartzman does a great job playing Jonathan's naivety and self-involvement without letting them get too pathetic or cute. His character has no personal boundaries, and is ready at a moment's notice to open up about his failed relationship to friends, clients, and adversaries alike. As George, Danson brings a great sense of neurotic, needy narcissism to his character, and his work impresses me most of all. It's easy to forget, in this post-Becker world, that Danson wasn't always something of a joke, but his ability to give color and characterization to Ames's dialog goes a long way towards redeeming him from his punchline status. And, thankfully, Galifianakis doesn't slip into the full-on hysterical shouting mode he sometimes adopts in other roles, instead playing Ray as a slightly sad, sex-starved, friendly stoner.

Judging by the show's inciting incident -- Suzanne's departure because of Jonathan's perpetually-arrested development -- you would think that Bored's narrative would follow a redemptive, coming-of-age path resulting in their reunion. But the first season gives us nothing so straightforward; it's not so much a story about growing up, but rather of growing into. The characters don't work towards shedding their flaws and becoming the kind of "adults" they're clearly not suited to being. Rather, they seem to grow into themselves, coming to embrace their flaws as character traits rather than things to get hung up on.

I was struck by the incredible open-mindedness of the three central characters. Jonathan goes wherever the cases lead him, almost as a matter of course. With a dream-like casual acceptance, he goes to disreputable places, talks to potentially-dangerous people, and bribes whoever he meets. Along the same lines, George is always game to do new things. He often calls when Jonathan is doing something unpleasant -- such as waiting for a colonic -- but almost always wants to be invited along when he finds out what's going on. Even Ray, in many ways the most sensible and grounded of the three, is willing to help out in spite of his own reservations and the admonitions of his girlfriend Leah (Heather Burns).

And yes, to be clear, this show is hipster wish fulfillment writ large. Who amongst us hasn't fantasized about making a living as a shiftless, addled writer, or a detective trawling the city's seedy underbelly? And while the show is conceptually similar to things like Kick-Ass, where living the fantasy has real, painful consequences, Bored doesn't try to be quite so gritty or hyperbolic. Jonathan isn't exactly great at sleuthing, even when his methods get results, but he's rarely in serious danger. This could have been a problem -- without urgency there is little drama -- but because the cases earn their tension from the awkwardness of Jonathan's detective skills, they remain engaging and keep the absurdity of Jonathan's new career in perspective.

In some ways, Bored is like a take on Dennis Potter (The Singing DetectivePennies From Heaven) minus the singing. Both use pulp tropes to comment on their own characters and settings, and have a heavy undercurrent of fantasy that augments the stories' darker tones. For Bored, the cases all comment on Jonathan's own situation in different ways. His first case involves a guy who ties up his girlfriend, who had attempted to leave him for reasons very similar to Suzanne's departure earlier in that episode. The second is about a woman who believes her boyfriend is cheating on her, but it turns out that, because of her alcoholism, he's been attending Alanon meetings (where he meets Suzanne, there for similar reasons). You could even make an argument for reading these cases as physical manifestations of Jonathan's psychological hang-ups, the fantastical inventions of a writer who play-acts because he knows no other way to get around his mundane troubles, though they become grounded in reality when his friends begin to get involved.

Indeed, it's in the scenes where Danson and Galifianakis are pulled into Jonathan's schemes that this show really fulfills its potential. The early episodes, usually so crucial for world-building, might be the least effective ones, due in no small measure to the George and Ray characters not yet clicking in the larger story. The show gets better, overall, during the second four episodes, when it begins mixing and matching the grab-bag of strange people we've been meeting along the way. Perhaps this is because Ames didn't write this set alone, bringing in veteran TV writers Donick Cary and Martin Gero to co-write. I'm excited to watch the second season (as soon as it's available on DVD) to see if the trend continues: Ames only wrote the first two episodes alone that time.

Incidentally, I don't mean to imply that the show is without fault. It could skew a little towards the tedious or boring side for people who don't share the show's sense of humor and absurdity. I personally enjoyed watching Jonathan mimic his idea of a stoic private eye, especially once I started taking his cases as metaphors-made-real, and also enjoyed whenever his tough facade fell off, but your mileage may vary. I could also see some viewers tipping over the line into "too quirky by half" territory, which is certainly fair. And the show's dreamlike narrative logic may rankle people who prefer more realistic, purpose-driven plots to wandering, semi-stoned connection making. For me, at least, the show always looks right (and with some of the best TV directing talent behind the camera, why shouldn't it?) and feels successful in its efforts to conflate Brooklyn hipster angst with noir paranoia and detective fiction errantry.

Best Episode - Episode 6: "The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer"
It's the first episode where George and Ray together play an important part in one of Jonathan's cases. I can specifically remember watching this episode's conclusion and thinking, "OK, I get this series. I'm in." Some of the funniest, most pathetic moments of the year, capped off by a mad cap assault with an ice scraper and toy unicorn. Episodes 6-8, collectively, made the season a solid winner.

Worst Episode - Episode 1: "Stockholm Syndrome" 
I'm not sure there were any bad episodes this season, but this one comes closest. The premiere falls short because of a poorly-paced introduction that barely gives the characters room to breathe. That may work on long, serialized dramas with a dozen characters, but in what's essentially a three-man show, it just feels sloppy. Plus, I don't think the Jonathan character we meet here would have shrugged off the police warning and continued his detective work; I just didn't buy it.

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