Knowing my love of detective fiction and American comedy, a friend recommended me Bored to Death, the Johnathan Ames show that had been on my radar for a while but I’d never gotten round to watching. He lent me the first season DVD and I watched it in less than two days. The elements were all there; detective theming; Zach Galifianakis; Ted Danson (starring now in the excellent The Good Place btw); Jason Schwartzman, and HBO, who have produced some of the best half-hour comedies of the last decade, from Flight of the Conchords to Curb your Enthusiasm. However quickly I worked through it, though, I felt like this show never really came together. It started awfully, and while it was admittedly much improved by the end, overall I never felt it was anything like as good as it should have been.
The show revolves around a writer named Johnathan Ames, played by Jason Schwartzman, who, recently single and struggling to write a second novel, decides to try moonlighting as a Private Investigator. Jason Schwartzman is a great pick for the role; equal parts cool and nerdy. However, his performance here leaves a lot to be desired. It never feels like he commits to his role either as a PI or a writer, and he has this bored expression on his face about 95% of the time (insert lousy ‘he looks bored to death’ line here). This does admittedly make his occasional breakdown (such as when he gets tased or runs from gangsters) all the more humorous, but it’s hard to care about a character who looks so detached. Another that annoyed me about John is a little more petty. I have a hatred for writers who name their lead characters after themselves, especially when it’s so obviously self-insert writing (for God’s sake, even the names of their novels are the same). This wouldn’t bother me so much if a large part of the final two episodes didn’t involve Johnathan beating up a critic who gave him a bad review – the critic, by the way, played by another writer-comedian John Hodgman. It just feels so… masturbatory, for lack of a better word. As Hodgman’s character might say, maybe next time he should try writing with both hands.
Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis also don’t come out of this unscathed. Danson’s character starts off nothing but a weed obsessed millionaire and is only redeemed in the last few episodes when he gets something to do. I don’t mind a character that’s bored with life, but this only works when they’re trying to get out of it, not indulging in it. When Danson puts on a wacky outfit to look young or accompanies Aimes on detective work just to have something fun to do, it’s funny. When he’s just smoking pot and talking about ‘life’, it’s no fun to watch, especially not when sober (although I can’t imagine it being much better stoned, either). The show’s obsession with pot again feels like Aimes shoving his world view down our throats. We get it, you like smoking weed and talking about how great it is. It’s boring to hear once, and repeating the same kind of scene once an episode is just infuriating. Galifianakis’ character Ray suffers the same problem as the other two. He’s bored, he’s pessimistic, he doesn’t emote much. Galifianakis is great at playing it low-key, but he needs some jokes in order to exercise that comedic timing I imagine you’d hire him for. Without that, he’s…boring me to death (sorry).
So far, not so great. Another failing comes in how it all looks. The direction in the show is bland, bland, bland; falling back on hoping we find the streets of New York or the interiors of empty looking apartments enough to keep our interest without providing anything of interest direction-wise for the viewer to latch onto. Take another HBO show, Flight of the Conchords for a good example of how to do this right. It also takes place in New York and doesn’t have too much going for it in terms of the direction in normal dialogue scenes, but it makes up for this through the music videos and cut-ins that give it some stylistic flair. More than that, FotC is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, while Bored to Death never elicited more than a few chuckles an episode, if it was lucky. Again, towards the end of the first series this improved, but not too much. What’s frustrating is that the whole premise sets itself up for stylistic flair; it’s based on noir detective novels, notorious for a very specific look. Apart from the occasional smoky bar or dimly lit avenue, however, it never makes good on its premise. If it wanted to show that being a PI wasn’t like in the novels, then fine. However, that isn’t what the show aims for. Aimes loves being a PI, but the show never embraces this like he does.
I’m being maybe too harsh. I liked the show as a whole; it had enough funny stuff and well-written scenes that I never quite veered into the realm of dislike. But a lot of it bored me; the characters are bored, the directors are boring, and this comes through. I have a feeling that the second season will be better if I get round to watching it, but this first season failed to lock-pick its way into my heart. (I think I’ll also have to console myself that I will never be as good at snappy lines as John Hodgman’s fictional critic…)