HBO // 2009 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino // September 1st, 2010
"Don't me a milquetoast, Jonathan." -- George
Amateur detectives aren't particularly new: lay folks, be they priests or professors or old ladies, have been solving mysteries without a license for decades. In Bored to Death, a new series on HBO, the latest upstart private eye is Jonathan Ames, a mopey writer neck-deep in the affected and cuthroat literary world of New York City.
Like a full moon or grain alcohol, getting dumped can push a man into realms of extreme behavior. When it comes to coping with love lost, some guys exercise and others buy expensive crap they don't need. When writer Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman, The Darjeeling Limited) gets dumped by his girlfriend, he turns to the seedy back alley of the internet: Craigslist. Jonathan submits an ad offering his services as an unlicensed private detective -- he's read enough pulpy noirs to know how to fight crime and solve mysteries. Within minutes of posting, he's on his first case.
As Jonathan tries to fit into his gum shoes over this eight-episode season, he simultaneously attempts to repair the broken relationship with his girlfriend, Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby, Juno); work as a society page reporter for his burdensome boss, George (Ted Danson, Becker); and advise his love-deprived illustrator friend, Ray (Zach Galifianakis, The Hangover). Not only does Jonathan realize that being a detective isn't easy, but doing so while submerged in Brooklyn's literary scene can be a real test of a man's gumption -- and his wallet.
The idea of a writer who thinks he can be a private detective because he's read Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler is a solid vehicle for a show. Teaming that writer up with his goofy editor and hefty-but-lovable friend rounds out that idea beautifully. Weighing this quixotic detective story down with pot jokes, romantic hang-ups, and subplots about colonics, however, is a bit much for a half hour show.
That's the central problem with Jonathan Ames's (the real life writer and show creator) Bored to Death. It's a fantastic idea for a show, filled with relatively likable characters, that's bogged down by too many disparate ideas. Not even the pilot gets the premise exactly right: the episode opens with Jonathan (the character) getting dumped and stumbling around his apartment until he comes across a Hammett novel. This somehow propels him to place an ad on Craigslist offering himself up as a detective. It's clear Ames (the writer) just wants to get the show moving, but we are never allowed, as viewers, into Ames's (the character) head. Instead, the joke of him explaining to people that he's a private detective is stretched out for episodes, and the cases themselves take a back seat to adventures like delivering one-hitters to his boss or trying to win back Suzanne.
Despite its thematic missteps and occasionally forced one-liners, the show is oddly watchable. The literary world that Ames (the writer) transports us into is funny and superficial: director Jim Jarmusch shows up riding a bicycle on the top floor of a warehouse; Sarah Vowell pops by to mediate terms in a boxing match between elite magazine publishers; and John Hodgman (the PC from those Apple commercials) gets punched in the face for writing a negative review -- I guess I should tread carefully.
The series does find its way eventually. By the fifth episode or so, Bored to Death is done explaining and establishing itself. Jonathan's cases, which range from dangerous (Russian gangsters) to trivial (stolen skateboard), take center stage. The show is at its best when George and Ray team up with Jonathan in "The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer": the gang loads up on high-tech spy gear, and try and lure the blackmailers into a motel trap. The season eventually comes full circle, in some respects, with the two-part finale "The Case of the Stolen Sperm" and "Take a Dive," which has all three characters facing off against their nemeses in a high profile boxing match. Some of the show's strongest material comes from the juxtaposition of the effete New York literary world with classic noir scenarios like rigged boxing matches and slimy blackmailers.
Bored to Death comes in a two-disc set with a score of excellent bonus materials. There's some entertaining commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and a "Making of" featurette. Ames and Schwartzman also team up for a tour of the show's various Brooklyn locales. Unfortunately, I found the show's video transfer to be oddly grainy, with plenty of noise filling the darker scenes. It's a beautifully filmed show, however, with some creative camera work and editing, so the grain could be forgiven. The Dolby Digital Surround audio mix is solid.
I really like Bored to Death's premise, I just wish the show was a little more consistent and confident. It's quite possible that things will improve with further seasons, so for now consider Season One a curiosity worth investigating as a rental.
Review content copyright © 2010 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site