Neutered puppies: Some notes on Bored to Death, and “Bored to Death”

I don’t watch much TV these days, so this section of the blog has long been neglected. Ended up renting the first two seasons of Bored to Death from the UGA Library recently, and the experience didn’t leave me wanting to watch season 3. This is weird, because the show’s milieu—citified writers and intellectuals over-thinking themselves about modern love and modern masculinity—is right up my alley. Alas. Well, it made for some fun writing, anyway.

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Bored to Death tries too hard, and I’m not even sure what it’s trying for. If it’s satire, it’s hard to tell what it’s satirizing. Brooklyn? White middle-class angst? Contemporary literary culture? American culture’s look-at-me obsession with itself? The conventions of film noir? Certainly, all those issues come into play but mostly that’s all they do—come into play. Nothing’s particularly rigorous here. In the story that forms the foundation of Bored to Death, Jonathan Ames decides to post a Craigslist ad for himself as an unlicensed private detective, as a way of shaking himself out of the torpor of being a rootless, white, educated male in an NPR culture that seems to emasculate him at every turn. Being a private dick starts as a daydream, a way to make himself more “authentic,” in precisely the way that vaguely liberal, hyper-educated white people project authenticity onto hard-boiled narratives of poverty and crime. It’s a good joke, a 20-page prose satire of the delusions of privileged white folks. It turns out that, despite what he thought, he’s not a good P.I. just because he’s read lots of Raymond Chandler. He ends up in real danger, with real guns and thugs, and no way out except for the violence he’s only experienced watching back episodes of The Wire. Things turn hairy. He kills people. And the mystery, that driving engine of Hammett and Chandler and Macdonald, doesn’t get resolved. That ambiguity—How much of this is real? How much is a put-on? What the fuck happens next?—is Ames’s neatest trick in the story. That irresolution troubles the mind, and stuck with me. But in Bored to Death, the HBO show fashioned from the story, there are no real stakes, no real danger or haunting. The plots shamble along from one strand to the next, like a confused but optimistic puppy gamboling through a park. That aimlessness extends to the characterization. Jason Schwartzmann’s version of Jonathan Ames is likable and earnest in the same way as a puppy, and ultimately just as dull. His voice, soft and hesitant, never rises above an almost-shout. His gestures are never broad enough to engage. Even when he’s being chased, and there are lots of chase scenes in Bored to Death, the running seems limp, blocked and shot with a lackadaisical design that mirrors Schwartzman’s movements. He doesn’t believe in this shit, either. I missed the menace and obsessiveness Schwartzmann showed in Rushmore, the sense that this quiet, never-raise-your-voice demeanor hid some darkness. Ames gives himself an actual cameo in the show. The first time we see him, what we see first is his flaccid penis. The show needs more of that sense of self-exposure and risk. Schwartzmann’s supposed to the straight man in a zany funhouse version of Brooklyn but even straight men should be interesting. The Ames of “Bored to Death” is frustrating, anxious, mildly perverse, a little disturbed, and not entirely likable—but he’s not dull. The Ames of Bored to Death is a neutered puppy, and so’s the show. The writing’s vaguely funny, full of lines that made me chuckle occasionally but little that made me laugh out loud. The crime scenarios lack bite and, even when Ames gets kidnapped and held for ransom, there’s nothing that made me want to cover my eyes. The photography lacks both grandiosity or weirdness, instead settling for a point-and-shoot HD gloss that’s functional but little more than that. There’s casual nudity—though not a lot; it’s tame by HBO’s standards—and weird sex that’s casually presented. Now, that is almost an interesting subtext for Bored to Death. In a season 2 episode, Ames goes undercover to an S&M dungeon, where his mistress is (yay!) Kristen Johnston. He’s been hired by a cop to wipe out the dungeon’s hard drive before a police raid, so that the cop won’t be exposed as a member of the clientele.  The way the episode’s shot and edited, the dungeon is no more threatening, weird, icky, or sexy than the coffeehouses Ames spends so much time in. As an accidental P.I., Ames stumbles into intrigues that require voyeurism and sneaking through garbage, that often involve infidelity and “perversity,” but nothing’s shocking anymore. It’s all comic fodder. The dungeon comes across as twee, of all things, which is actually funny. What was dark and hidden in the world of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe is now passé and even bland in the world of Jonathan Ames, which highlights the lack of necessity for Ames’s part-time job. Noir’s conventions crumble because of a hyper-sexualized culture in which every emotion or idea—sexual or not—is exposed. Now that’s worth exploring. But it’s probably only sustainable for a feature-length film, not a continuing series. After all, if Bored to Death wants to highlight the lack of necessity for private eyes in this culture, then how do you, um, justify continuing the show’s premise? Bored to Death never answers that question satisfactorily. But I could tell that it recognized the problem. Whole episodes don’t deal with Jonathan on a “case” at all, instead on his romantic woes. Season 1’s last two episodes focus on a ridiculous boxing match between two rival book editors, and their authors (Jonathan Schwartzmann and John Hodgman) serve as their seconds. There’s no pretense of noir to be found, and it comes as an odd relief. Now, those editors are played by Ted Danson and Oliver Platt, who provide the only resonant, bold, and genuinely funny performances in Bored to Death. In particular, Danson—as Ames’s editor George Christopher—is a hoot. He’s the rampaging, entitled id to Jonathan’s superego. George doesn’t hold back his tongue, his cock, his anger, or his raw cravings. Bored to Death’s Brooklyn is all mutters, stutters, deadpans, and whispered asides, a New York that lacks brashness, vivid colors, or grand gestures. So it’s nice to see one character who’s bratty and visceral, not to mention funny. Danson clearly relishes the role, even if the role’s a little—like the rest of this show—vague and ill-defined. George edits Edition but it’s not clear what Edition is supposed to be. Is it a sendup of the New Yorker (a weekly magazine of high/middle culture mixed with news) or something more rarified, like the Paris Review (a quarterly focusing mostly on literature)? Or is it a competitor to The New Republic (sorta lefty, mostly political commentary with culture in the back end)? Or is it a straight-up newsweek? It’s not clear what Edition is, and the gleam of its offices—and George’s suits—shimmer more than a cultural magazine’s budget would allow. Even his name, a mashup of the Paris Review’s George Plimpton and Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens, gets at the warring and unresolved impulses. Indeed, Bored to Death ultimately doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s unformed, an arrested adolescent that’s rarely as clever as it thinks it is. To the degree that it is formed, it’s because of its older characters, who seem mature and sure of themselves (even when behaving like entitled children) and their places in the world. And maybe that’s the true subject of Bored to Death—the sense that we’re living in a culture of perpetual adolescence, a world always in flux and veering from one extreme to the other, while longing for the certainties and foundation of adulthood. But Bored to Death can’t decide on that point, or any point, or how to make its point (whatever it is) cinematically. Its title is apropos.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Neutered puppies: Some notes on Bored to Death, and “Bored to Death”

  1. Andrew Hidas says:

    Yo Walter,

    Love your stuff in general, but can I convince ya to consider paragraph breaks now & again?

    Yeowwww, this sea of unbroken digital ink looks daunting! The eye, the psyche, the whole body/mind/perceptual apparatus needs a little spaciousness, a little room—studies have shown!

    Cheers,

    Andrew

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