Post-Sopranos (and to a certain extent post-Six Feet Under, The Wire and Deadwood), HBO has been trying to find its signature shows. They’ve had some success with comedy, but though Entourage has been running for a while now, many (like Flight of the Concords, Extras, Eastbound and Down) have had one or two season runs by the nature of their creators. It’ll be interesting to see how long they can go with Bored to Death –it has the potential to go for a while – mostly because both Jason Schwartzman and Zach Galifianakis are movie stars. But these days, maybe you can do both TV and movies. My review of the Blu-ray of Bored to Death: Season One after the jump.
The show was created by writer Jonathan Ames, and Jason Schwartzman’s character is named Jonathan Ames, so he’s something of an author surrogate. When the series begins, Ames is going through a painful break up with Suzanne (Olivia Thrilby), who can’t stand his constant drinking and pot smoking. To cut back on the booze he switches to white wine, but that’s not enough to keep her around. In a fit of boredom he decides to offer his services as an unlicensed private detective, and this is generally the driving force of each episode. His best friend is fellow stoner Ray Hueston (Galifianakis), and his boss/friend George Christopher (Ted Danson) is constantly calling him. George is an older single man who wants desperately to feel a part of things, and so he is both friend and benefactor to Ames.
As the series starts it wrestles with conventionality. In the first episode a girl’s sister has been kidnapped, and in the second he tails someone’s boyfriend to see if they are cheating. With these episodes – though the second has a great cameo appearance by Kristen Wiig – the show seems to be turning into a standard sitcom with a slight HBO-y edge. Wiig’s boyfriend is not cheating but going to AA, where Ames’s ex is also going. And in that you’ve got the standard sitcom neatness of the main character’s story being reflected in the work he’s doing. And it gets really neat in a boring way, even if the performers are engaging. As the series goes on, the show teeters on being dull when Ames is given a script to read by Jim Jarmusch (playing himself), and ends up leaving the script behind the couch of the shrink father of the underage girl he goes home with. This set up, the embarrassing situation of shame is so stock that it’s a relief that it never falls too lamely into the sort of embarrassment comedy that the situation is set up for. And when that episode ends well enough, you can see that the show is finding out what it wants to be. Death doesn’t really find its bearing until it does something that would seem self evident, but it’s not until more than halfway through he run of the first season that Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis have a scene together.
The second those two share a frame – either with or without Schwartzman – the show takes on a life it didn’t have before. And though Galifianakis is beginning to wear out his image in playing man-children, Hueston has a totally different energy and Zach really nails the character. It’s his best sustained work as an actor, and he manages to be funny and real. If Due Date implodes on him, this shows that the man has a future. And if the show starts with the idea/promise that Ames is close to cleaning up his act, when the show abandons those notions and lets these three impish men act like idiots and drink and smoke weed, it occasionally achieves greatness.
I also like how Ames’s character improves as a detective or assumes more Sam Marlowe-esque characteristics the more he does work. He’s still sort of incompetent, but he at least isn’t totally stupid. And the idea that it’s somehow therapy to get over his break up is smart. But the show is like a number of series where it didn’t know what it was or could be until they got into it. With an eight episode run, I’m curious when they figured it out. It often takes comedies a while to find their feet (Seinfeld, The Office and Parks and Rec are just three examples), but here I assume the episodes were a little more mapped out. Perhaps not. Regardless, the energy these guys have built up suggests that – if they’ve figured it out – season two could be killer. Season one is worth checking out, but like most first seasons, you’ve got a number of rough spots.
HBO’s Blu-ray set presents the series over two discs, with four episodes on each. All are presented in spotless widescreen (1.78:1) transfers in 5.1 DTS-HD surround. Like most comedies, the surrounds aren’t overwhelming, but the transfer here is immaculate. Four of the episodes have commentary, with Schwartzman and Ames on every track and a guest with them in each session. Directors Alan Taylor, Michael Lehmann join them for their episodes on disc one, while director Adam Bernstein and star Ted Danson are on disc two. Both discs have two deleted scenes (7 min. in total), all of which are small snippets or alternate version of connective tissue. There’s also two featurettes: “Jonathan Ames’s Brooklyn” (13 min.) where the author walks with Schwartzman around his usual haunts (all of which appear in the show), and a more standard making of (20 min.).