Taking a stab at entertainment

HBO announced earlier this month that it picked up the new comedy Bored to Death, starring Jason Schwartzman, for a second season.

HBO announced earlier this month that it picked up the new comedy Bored to Death, starring Jason Schwartzman, for a second season. This may come as a surprise to viewers who think the success of a show generally hinges on whether or not it is interesting.

Because Bored to Death is, well, boring.

The show is about Jonathan (Schwartzman), a novelist struggling to write his elusive second book—considered the hardest in a writer’s career. He is folding under the pressure, and his girlfriend Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby) has just left him, due in part to her perception of Jonathan as an alcoholic. Alcoholism doesn’t really seem to be Jonathan’s issue (smoking pot, maybe), and the disease is further joked about.

Drawing on inspiration from a Raymond Chandler novel, Jonathan conceives the idea to market himself, on Craigslist, as an “unlicensed” private detective (it seems more legal that way). He starts solving problems for people, mostly missing-persons cases, and there are allusions to Philip Marlowe right off the bat.

Jonathan conducts his new business based solely on what he’s read in novels.

“In the books I’ve read, the private detective always asks for expenses,” said Jonathan in the first episode, as he explains his situation to a police officer. This aspect of the show is charming, and has the potential for some great antics. But the resulting storylines are actually very mild, more true-to-life and largely uninteresting.

For his day job, Jonathan works for magazine mogul George Christopher, played by the hilarious Ted Danson.
Their relationship blurs the lines between work and friendship, which is great because Danson brings levity to the otherwise uninspired dialogue.

Perhaps the show’s creator, novelist Jonathan Ames (yes, he named the protagonist after himself—he’s an original Borges), hasn’t taken too many missteps. While the half-hour episodes aren’t full of action and the dialogue borders on cheesy (in one episode Jonathan actually says, “It’s like my heart’s broken again but it doesn’t hurt as much because I’m used to it”), the mood is right.

Bored to Death really is like a detective novel brought to life—that’s what it seems Ames is going for—and the genre accounts for a certain amount of pulp. What it doesn’t allow for, however, is irony. At least not in this dose. Unfortunately, Schwartzman is the king of ironic disillusionment.

Schwartzman’s shtick as the pitiful intellectual works in Wes Anderson films, where the part is written that way, but his deadpan approach to everything is unfitting in this role. Jonathan is bookish, and when he tries to be assertive his skittishness comes out. Schwartzman does this part right, but he shows no emotion. It’s hard to believe the character is ever embarrassed about anything. Jonathan tells everyone he meets that his girlfriend just broke up with him, but Schwartzman never seems sad. He never seems anything.

So while the writing isn’t perfect, Schwartzman seems to be the biggest problem. He is too detached from the role of Jonathan. You get the feeling that Schwartzman thinks he’s better than this guy.

The show also takes the occasional stab at cultural commentary, but hasn’t been enlightening. For example, Jonathan’s first client, a blank-faced college student who noticed his ad, emphatically says, “I love Craigslist! I use it for everything.” Oh, Internet-age jadedness! Such bland remarks have no place on HBO.

The guest spots for Bored to Death have been full of star power so far, with an Entourage-esque cameo by director Jim Jarmusch and appearances by Kristen Wiig, Parker Posey and Patton Oswalt as Jonathan’s clients. Zach Galifianakis plays his best friend Ray, but it isn’t a role where he gets to be his weird self.

Two more episodes will air this season, making it only eight episodes long. Here’s hoping Schwartzman will take the role more seriously so the show can find its groove during season two.