Wednesday, October 21, 2009

'Bored to Death' cultivates young writer fantasy

If "Entourage" is the ultimate young adult male fantasy, then HBO’s "Bored to Death" is, more specifically, a young writer’s fantasy. The writer Jonathan Ames (played by Jason Schwartzman), based on the real-life series creator-writer, decides to moonlight as a private detective after his girlfriend dumps him. (OK, that cause-and-effect motive from the pilot will never quite be convincing.)

His life: Frequenting New York Film Society social functions, getting handed scripts by Jim Jarmusch, being best friends with one’s editor, getting drunk off white wine and scenic inspiration a la Brooklyn, and having no shortage of things (good and bad) happen to him.

Despite all this, Jonathan is depressed, naïve and all too milquetoast. Thus is life as a young writer. "Bored to Death" is probably the first hipster noir, and also, obviously a comedy.

This is HBO’s second show set in Brooklyn recently – following "Flight of the Conchords." A hipster serial trend could emerge with this engaging series, which premiered Sept. 20. It disappointed in the first few weeks by taking the easy way out on more than one occasion. Five episodes in, it’s not a great mystery or a great comedy, just a good show that’s a little bit of both and sometimes neither. It works best when it isn’t trying to devise a genuine mystery – that it never quite pulls off.

George Christopher (played by Ted Danson), an avuncular magazine editor socialite (who is never seen actually working), fostered a compelling bond with Jonathan. Danson, who suddenly became TV’s foremost character actor in his golden years, steals the show here. As George, he has more luck getting his way than as himself, at 9 p.m., convincing Larry David to take a bite of cake.

The character was conceived as a cross between two journalists: the erudite, deceased George Plimpton and the hedonistic Christopher Hitchens. George eccentrically clings to the faded frisky naiveté of his 20s yet, at the same time, craves the earned status of an elder statesman.

Zach Galifinakis’ role as Ray, Jonathan’s other best friend, makes things confusing since both George and Ray are intended as comic reliefs. And yes, it is a comedy show, but George is the right kind of crazy. Ray is a confused, sensitive cartoonist with an injection of the comic’s own deranged, deadpan shtick. The character comparatively struggles to spring off the page because he’s underwritten. Galifinakis is a great comedian – just not for this show.

'The Case of the Lonely White Dove'

In the fifth episode, “The Case of the Lonely White Dove,” the series touches on all its narrative threads with fascinating maturity. The noir is in full swing as a Russian ex-con who wants to track down a lounge singer he slept with the night before he was sent to prison. Jonathan invites his ex-girlfriend to dinner at the Russian nightclub in Brighton Beach where the singer works. Jonathan is wistful, thinking he’s figured out where he went wrong with his relationship, but mixing business with pleasure never goes according to plan.

Also, George takes a cue from publisher Jann Wenner and plans to channel his bisexual side in a peculiar effort to beckon greater female readership of his mag.

One particular scene was an example of allusion overload. George’s hyper-literary male escort, played Romany Malco, broke the ice by referencing Klaus Kinski, Woody Allen’s The Whores of Mensa and Samuel Beckett while "Bored to Death"'s writers apparently got high off their own supply.

The real-life Ames' commitment to the show is admirable and unsurprising considering the affection and observation that's devoted to the depiction of the eponymous Brooklyn writer protagonist. Ames, a New York Press columnist-turned-novelist, writes or co-writes each of the series' episodes. You'd think this would lend itself to a greater homogeneity in quality among the scripts. Nevertheless, Ames' recognizable closeness behind the scenes strengthens the series' concoction of the writer fantasy.

In episode no. 5, the mystery, specifically the boardwalk scenes, was the most complex it’s been so far this season and could have stood alone. And yet, there was still ample time devoted to Jonathan’s relationship and Ray’s failed attempts at intimacy. And even George learned something. More impressive? Ames managed to conceptualize his vision of Brooklyn as an evocative fantasy world. "Bored to Death" suffered creatively at the worst possible time – at the beginning of the first season when it should be luring viewers not lulling them to sleep. But it has improved (and with the viewership flock came a second-season renewal), and just like the path of any young struggling writer, it needs to be given a chance.

"Bored to Death" airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. EST on HBO.

No comments: