Big sleepy

Bored to Death brings a stoner PI to HBO
By RYAN STEWART  |  September 16, 2009

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GAY LOVERS? And if Ray and Jonathan were, who’d be top dog?

Interview: Jason Schwartzman. By Ryan Stewart.
If television is indeed a reflection of society, then to judge from what's on the screen these days, we're all surrounded by people leading seedy double lives. That teacher you know? He's probably selling drugs (Breaking Bad) or prostituting himself after school (Hung). The guy who sold you your iPod? He's involved in top-secret espionage (Chuck). And that suave ad man? He stole his entire persona from a dead soldier in Korea (Mad Men). Now, thanks to HBO's Bored to Death (debuts September 20 at 9:30 pm), we'll all be wondering whether that creative-class Brooklynite taking up space in the local coffeehouse isn't an aspiring private detective.

Bored to Death gives us Jason Schwartzman as a struggling young novelist named Jonathan Ames. The show's creator, it turns out, is also a novelist named Jonathan Ames. Jonathan (the character) is talented, having written a novel that's found a small following of admirers, but he can't motivate himself to write the follow-up. He's unhappy, and he's surrounded by unhappy people. He supports himself by writing pieces for an unnamed magazine edited by his friend George (Ted Danson), a socialite who escapes via boozing, promiscuity, and drugs. Jonathan also spends a lot of his free time sitting in a café commiserating with his artist friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis), who draws himself as a superhero in his comics.

Jonathan's lethargy could be attributed in part to the fact that he's a bit of a drunk and a pothead. That's why his girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) leaves him in the show's first scene, despite his protests that he's switched to white wine ("low alcohol content," he cheerfully observes). When she goes, she takes almost everything in their apartment except for Jonathan's laptop and his collection of classic noir mysteries.

The latter provide his ostensible reason for taking up detective work. But the transformation is the result more of whim than of self-realization. One minute Jonathan's reading Raymond Chandler; the next he's placing an ad on Craigslist as an "unlicensed" private eye (he tells Ray that identifying himself as unlicensed makes it slightly less illegal) specializing in missing-person cases.

Schwartzman gets a lot of mileage out of Jonathan's dweebishness. Walking into a seedy bar, Jonathan orders white wine, then changes it to whiskey so he can look tough; he takes a sip, grimaces, and chokes. On another case, he tails his mark into a gym but makes himself too conspicuous, first by working out right next to the guy, then by awkwardly chatting him up, all so he can kill another bird with the same stone by getting a soundbite for George. He relishes telling a client that "trouble is my business," and he impishly suggests that if he and Ray were gay lovers, he'd be the top, like a herding dog, barking at him all night. Galifianakis is perfect as Ray, too bogged down in self-loathing to get beyond his superhero fantasies of himself.

The entire cast is in fact outstanding, and yet Bored to Death is still finding its footing. In each of the first two episodes, Jonathan takes on a straightforward, simple case that he solves within the half-hour. It would be gratifying to see him stumble onto something larger than he could have ever expected. Brooklyn's a big borough, after all.

  Topics: Television , Media, Olivia Thirlby, Olivia Thirlby,  More more >
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