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Bored to Death Has Potential, But It's Not There Yet

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In Sky Atlantic's new comedy Bored To Death (which is based on a short story by Jonathan Ames), Jason Schwartzman plays Jonathan Ames, a writer who posts an ad on Craigslist advertising himself as an "unlicensed private detective." Recently dumped by his girlfriend Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), Jonathan is having trouble writing his second novel. In one scene he is reading a Raymond Chandler novel, (the show is overflowing with references to things like Chandler, art films--Jim Jarmusch guest stars in one episode--and Jungian psychiatry) but that's all the impetus we get for Jonathan posting his ad. For now, the reasonings behind that decision is unclear.

But Psych this ain't. In Jonathan's first case, he is hired by a girl to find her sister, who didn't show up for a concert they were supposed to attend. The missing girl has a boyfriend the sister doesn't like, so Jonathan decides to "cherchez l'homme" rather than "cherchez la femme." Like a lot of the lines in this pilot, the speaker is the only one impressed with its cleverness. The "cases" Jonathan takes are not exactly whodunits, and they all manage to be solved in spite of Ames' involvement rather than because of it.

But Bored to Death (Monday, March 28 at 10pm) isn't really a detective story, nor is it a bumbling detective story, like The Pink Panther movie (the original, not the sacrilegious remakes). It's really a comedy about the problems of a white thirtysomething man who drinks and smokes too much and has trouble figuring out how to be happy. These themes could be described as universal, but it's more apt to call them uninteresting. In the first scene of the show, Jonathan remarks that it's odd that the movers hired to take Suzanne's stuff are Jewish, because they are doing muscle-intensive work. One of them asks, "What are you? Another self-hating New York Jew?" And Jonathan replies, "Yes I am." Such a character archetype wasn't new when Woody Allen was doing Annie Hall, so there has to be something really interesting to add to the conversation, like Allen did. In the first few episodes, Bored to Death doesn't do that.

Which is too bad. The trailer for the show made it look really exciting, and it has a great cast. Zach Galifianakis plays Ray, Jonathan's best friend. Ted Danson plays George, the editor of the magazine where Jonathan freelances. Schwartzman, Thirlby, Galifianakis, and Danson are all talented comedic actors--and it seems like they are trying--but there's not much for them to do. Danson's George is an oft-divorced cad with his own substance abuse and sexual problems to deal with--but there's not much that's authentic or humorous about his character. The best character so far is Ray's girlfriend Leah (Heather Burns), a single mother of two who thinks that solving the problems that she has with their relationship (and ignoring Ray's problems) will fix everything. Some of the funniest moments come from Ray's inability to do anything other than what she dictates.

It would be easy to say that the title is an appropriate description of how you might feel when you watch it, but that's not really true. The problem is that a sitcom has to be more comedy than situation--and Bored to Death's heavyweight cast and literary aspirations (the best line so far is a To Kill A Mockingbird reference) can't remedy the show's assumption that if it creates an absurd situation (like George asking Jonathan to punch him in the mouth to cover up a herpes blister on his lip), the comedy will naturally follow. It doesn't (that particular scene ends with the most obvious and disappointing result of slapstick; a kick to the balls). It would be nice if Bored to Death just decided to pick one aspect and do it well. Be a satire of the New York publishing world, or a detective romp, or a dark comedy about relationships. Right now it's a little bit of all of those things, and it suffers from the lack of commitment. As the series goes forward it does find a focus, but for now this reputation is the only reason we're sticking with it.

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