Although you can count me among the disappointed I was surprised to see the intense reaction to HBO’s canceling of Bored to Death. I enjoyed the show firstly for that same hometown pride, for that kind of insider thrill we used to get from watching Law and Order and to try to recognize all the on-the-street locations. Likewise it was a kick to see Schwarzmann get baked with Jenny Slate in the stock room of the the Park Slope Food Coop, or hang off the clock of the Williamsburg Bank Building where I went to the dentist for years, or to watch Zach Gallifiniakis wrestle with a baby on stroller clogged Seventh Avenue, because who among us hasn’t faced that peril?
But more than that it was a funny, well built comedy of urban manners, and while Jason Schwartzman, the charming avatar of Jonathan Ames, real life novelist and the show’s creator, leads a somewhat improbable life as a struggling writer the show did deftly illuminate a funny little cultural niche. Schwartzman and Ames also created an unusual type of hero, a humble, sensitive, self-deprecating leading man, fond of pot and white wine, likes girls but is not opposed to at least trying a threesome with another man. Other shows like Portlandia and Parks and Recreation have offered up a crop of similarly awkward if endearing characters, continuing the millennial worship of the geek/nerd personality type. Schwartzman takes this model to a much cooler dimension though, he’s no Napoleon Dynamite after all, but in a way closer to Carrie Bradshaw, HBO’s other emblematic New Yorker of an earlier moment.
The show was similarly clever too, especially in the beginning, and the premise of Ames’ character falling into private detective work was silly enough to amuse us but believable enough to propel the scripts and illuminate the psyche of the fictional Ames. The idea of shrimpy Schwarzmann as heir to the hardboiled Chandler and Hammett was undeniably funny too and the meta-world of a fictional novelist named after real life novelist, emulating the fictional creations of other (dead) real life novelists’ was handled perfectly, providing the right dose of intellectual acrobatics without getting pretentious. Schwartzman’s quirky Jonathan was well supported by his fellow actors too. Ted Danson, in some of his funniest work on television as the deposed magazine magnate George Christopher, replete with Graydon Carter coif, perfectly embodied the bemused perspective of old, rich Manhattan, quite comfortable in its bespoke skin but so curious as to what it’s upstart little sibling was getting into across the river. Together with Zach Galliafinakis, who brought his trademark calamitous if cuddly stoner neuroses, they rounded out one of the most original threesomes on TV.
I’m a Brooklyn native and struggling writer myself, and I always looked forward to the show, especially after a joint and a glass of a nice pinot grigio. I never quite felt like I was watching myself, (actually I hate the idea of identifying with characters) but any show about books, Brooklyn, and bud will get my attention. If Facebook is a good cultural barometer for anything (Wait, don’t answer that question) then apparently a lot of other people felt the same - but I never would have thought it veered into fanboy territory. Why the outrage, one wonders? But also why the drop off in viewers then, and ultimately the cancellation? (Apparently only 200,000 people watched the show’s season finale.) Bored to Death had all the right elements after all and quite frankly had hit the ground running. Then - pfffft.
I think, finally, that what kills most show is that they lose what is known in business parlance as “core competence”, though in TV has been called jumping the shark. Usually it takes a few seasons, five in the case of Happy Days, which is where the reference actually comes from (Fonzi, on a trip to California, well, jumps a shark while waterskiing thus dismantling forever the show’s credibility and marks its irrevocable decline). I don’t think any single moment did in Bored to Death, but without a doubt it crept from it’s original funny mashup of Woody Allen-style neurotics and Sex in the City escapades to a mostly directionless muddle that traded inventiveness for shtick. The once effective premise of Schawrtzman’s private investigations provided him and Gallifinakis and Danson with their urban and urbane adventures, madcap perhaps but never at the cost of witty scripts or genuine characterizations. That changed. The real Ames’ and the show’s other writers increasingly pursued laborious, plot driven contrivances, discarding the natural charm of their characters, forcing them into artificially absurd situations with every “case” and extracting them with equal incredulity. Sure, the wackiness was what gave the show it’s unique perspective, but even absurdity has to have at least one foot in plausibility, if only to make it funnier. Once the main stars all don catsuits for example, or when sandbags are actually dropping out of the sky we’ve gone off into cartoon land and abandoned the players for gags.
The half hour comedy, while necessarily dependent on plot (how else to do something different each week?) needs to respect it’s players. We relate to them, not their escapades. We like to see them challenged by their circumstances but bend them too much too soon and we no longer recognize them, and no longer watch. Only Danson really held his ground and remained believably George through whatever was thrown at him. The fictional Jonathan Ames in finding himself not so much in implausible situations but became considerably less compelling and Galliafinakis, despite a wickedly funny arc as young lover to octogenarian Olympia Dukakis, was forced to turn in the same expected if funny gags, becoming a clown instead of flexing his talents as an actor with a real comedic gift. The Galifinakis/Dukakis affair, while improbable in itself was handled instead so simply and matter of fact that its humor was only amplified by the realness both actors brought to the relationship (and to the sex which was pretty explicit - see: “bathtub handjob”). A pratfall spotted episode however on the Dick Cavett show vastly underused Cavett’s own laser-like wit, and exemplified the show’s further descent into gimmickry.
I also had issues with much of the dialogue, which again often abandoned the idiosyncrasies of the characters, Jonathan in particular, and at times was downright flat. It was as if the writers expected the show’s plot convolutions to carry everything. I know that the Schwartzman’s Ames was supposed to be a little shy and self-effacing, but he is a writer after all. Could we not have had a little more verbal wit?
I would have rather that HBO give the show a little while longer to find itself again. This season Jonathan’s main investigation was to discover the identity of his biological father after learning he was conceived from donated sperm. Jonathan’s quest for his real dad, (Stacy Keach as a could-have-been-funnier Coney Island schlock-merchant) was a compelling one, and a perfect foil for the comedy that fronted it. That he inadvertently slept with his half sister, Isla Fisher, who was also investigating her origins at the sperm bank, and veered off into incest was daring if a little off-putting, though how it would have played out we had yet to see. We’ll never get that chance I guess.
Maybe it was just an insurmountable sophomore slump or maybe the demise of Bored to Death is the harbinger of something else. If anything we were drawn to its well tuned cultural perspective. It was a show about the “right now” without feeling cloyingly hip and while the show made many nods to the texture of Brooklyn life, it never became a lifestyle catalogue. Schwartzman was always spot on too, perfectly balancing Jonathan’s self deprecating charm with a writer’s quiet, urgent passion. Something else changed. It became harder to believe that these characters actually inhabited the lives they were written into. We can believe anything after all, sexy vampires, an ethical serial killer, even a horny Betty White. What we can’t believe is how it only takes two seasons to fuck up a good show.