We all know that HBO used to be the gold standard for original television programming, and we know that it’s been fighting a losing game of King of the Mountain over the last several years both because of the increase in quality of other cable network shows and the loss of its own flagship shows. In light of this slippage, over the last few years HBO has been trying to not so much redefine itself, but to figure out what it’s going to be moving forward. On the comedy side of things, particularly with “Flight of the Concords” and “Hung,” the network seems to moving towards a more subtle and subdued form of comedy, away from the broader (and no longer funny) “Entourage” and (the still generally funny) “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (we’ll ignore the failed concept that was the brilliant Louis C.K.’s “Lucky Louie”).
Of course, the network hasn’t had a breakout comedy since “Entourage.” Sure, “Flight of the Concords” is both a critical and cult fave, and the first season of the just-finished “Hung” slowly garnered positive reviews and an appreciative fan base. But the network has yet to find its next breakout comedy. “Bored to Death” will not be that comedy, both because it continues the trend of subdued comedy (albeit while mixing in some comically bizarre, and slightly broad pieces), and because it’s frankly not all that funny.
The show is centered on Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), who is a moderately successful NYC writer with a somewhat steady magazine gig and one successful novel under his belt. But Jonathan’s bored and lost in life, particularly when the show opens, as he’s dealing with a rather painful breakup (his now ex-girlfriend is played in the first two episodes by a severely underused Olivia Thirlby). As a lark, because of of his desire for some excitement and his love of Raymond Chandler, Jonathan winds up posting an ad on CraigsList, posing as a private investigator. Of course he gets a response, so he’s off and running as an unlicensed P.I. The first two episodes focus primarily on Jonathan moving forward with this quasi-accidental new life of his, with one case being the focus of each episode. In fact, there only appear to be two other major and regular characters we meet during these first two episodes — Ray (Zach Galifianakis), a comic book artist who’s Jonathan’s off-center best friend, and George (Ted Danson), a well-known magazine editor who both employs Jonathan and scores weed from him (Jonathan is a mad pot smoker and white wine drinker).
But as I mentioned a paragraph ago, so far, the show really isn’t that funny. At times, the writing manages to do a dance, which leaves me finding it both mildly clever and self-knowingly pretentious, like the quote I used for this review’s headline and the following dialogue:
Niko: Where have you been? George is pissed.
Jonathan: He’s drunk already?
Niko: Don’t pull that anglophile bullshit, ok?. He’s pissed, as in angry. At you.
And at other times, there’s an intentional slightly over-the-top hyper-reality zaniness that feels a little too much like it’s trying to do a Wes Anderson thing (see, e.g., the conclusion of each episode’s case). But at few times is any of it actually funny or even all that amusing. In fact, befitting the title, I found it far more boring than funny, to the point that at least three times during my viewing of these two episodes I had to force myself to re-focus and pay attention, as I was mindlessly drifting to random internet browsing.
That’s not to say the show is totally without merit. For one thing, like many HBO productions, it’s a very good-looking show, with a nice style and interesting cinematography (and well-shot mostly on location in NYC). It also has an excellent casting director, with the smaller one-off rolls being filled nicely, and some good larger names slated for multi-episode appearances (like the aforementioned Thirlby; Parker Posey, Oliver Platt and Patton Oswalt are each slated to show up in a pair of episodes during the first season, too). And most importantly of all, it has Danson and Galifianakis. I’ve been an unabashed fan of Galifianakis’ for years, and he can do little wrong in my book. So I loved every scene he was in, and a couple of them were quite amusing (but, sadly, never laugh-out-loud funny).
The true highlight of the show for me, however, was Danson. Between his appearances on “Curb” and “Damages,” Ted Danson has managed to find both a comedic and dramatic depth his earlier career lacked (Three Men and a Baby notwithstanding, of course). And he seems to have melded them perfectly here, playing this amped up caricature which is both funny and a little sad, without feeling like “too much.” In fact, it took me a while to piece this together, but Danson’s performance is, in a way, actually my biggest problem with the show, because it highlights what I like least about the show.
See, Danson seems to nail what the show is going for. His performance is smooth and flawless. Galifianakis, to a slightly lesser extent, also fits right in (though I think that’s more because this tone is simply in the same wheelhouse as his general comedic tendencies, whereas Danson has had to work hard, for years, to get to this finely-tuned spot. But Schwartzman, who is the focus of the show, just feels out of place. It’s almost like he’s trying too hard, although I don’t really think that’s it — in fact, there’s not really any single criticism I can place on his performance. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with him from an objective standpoint. But subjectively, I just found his performance to be entirely unenticing and too much of an overly “intentional” character, if that makes sense. And so as I watched most of his scenes, I was generally waiting for whoever else was in the scene to talk or do something. Which isn’t exactly the hallmark of a great show.
That being said, this first season has a short episode run (eight total, I believe), so I’m going to try to stick it out to see if the show can find its wings. But I fear that, throughout that whole time, I’m going to keep thinking back to a line from the second episode where, in the middle of a small monologue, Danson’s George says to Jonathan: “I’m in your movie and you’re in mine.” Because the ultimate takeaway from the show for me, I fear, is going to be that I’d much rather be watching the story of Danson’s (or Galifianakis’) character with Schwartzmann as the aside, rather than the other way around.
(“Bored To Death” premieres on HBO this Sunday night at 9:30 p.m. and will then be rerun throughout the week.)
Seth Freilich is something something. Go crazy? Don’t mind if I do!