Title: Bored to Death
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, and Ted Danson
First aired: September 2009–November 2011 (HBO)
Where you can watch it: Netflix DVD, HBO GO, Amazon Prime
I’ll admit that I’m too prone to exclaiming, “Why didn’t I think of that?” I prefer to view this less as an indictment of my own creative powers and more as a testament to my ability to recognize a good idea when I see one. Still, the premise of Jonathan Ames’ Bored to Death is just so perfect—Schwartzman plays a blocked writer who moonlights as a private eye, even though he learned his trade from mystery novels—that it makes me wonder why didn’t anyone think of that. Well, Ames did, of course, but you’d think someone else would have done it sooner.
Or maybe my love of this show derives from the fact that I am a writer who’s dabbled in crime fiction despite my utter lack of firsthand knowledge about bad behavior. And if my introduction sounds like it’s threatening to stray off course, well, that’s actually on topic, too, because the main characters are potheads for whom self-absorption and digression are second nature. In the wrong hands, this could have resulted in a Z-grade Jim Breuer vehicle, but instead it’s a delicious comic treat, delivered in pot-brownie-sized morsels.
Schwartzman plays “Jonathan Ames” (yes, the same name as the show’s creator), a writer with a serious second-act problem. Dumped by a girlfriend who hates his passivity, his drinking, and his pot smoking, and blocked in his attempt to finish his second novel, he has a chance encounter with Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, which prompts him to impulsively compose a Craigslist ad billing himself as a private detective with “reasonable” fees. He’s all but forgotten about the ad when the phone rings and he has his first client at $100 per day—hardly rent money in Manhattan.
Jonathan’s best friends are Ray Hueston (Galifianakis), a slacker comic-book-artist in a precarious marriage, and George Christopher (Ted Danson), a silver-haired men’s-magazine editor suffering from a serious case of ennui. The trio is seriously mismatched, but that’s half the fun: the seriousness with which Danson takes his friendship with Jonathan is both funny and endearing. As they get high in a bathroom stall during a tedious publishing party, he tells the younger man, “You’re like me, Jonathan. We enthrall and then we disappoint.” (George also says, “I don’t know what’s going on but almost everybody has bad wine breath tonight. It’s like Chernobyl out there.”)
Funny and melancholy, probably a little more Woody Allen than Wes Anderson, the show’s three, eight-episode seasons feature slow-burn humor, wry laughs, and occasional madcap antics. There’s something modern and old-fashioned about it at the same time. When white-wine-drinking Jonathan attempts to appear tough by ordering a whiskey in a dive bar—hardly a new gag—his perfectly played reaction still earns a laugh.
And his pot-smoking rationalization, delivered to his departing girlfriend, is wonderfully economical:
“They give it to cancer patients.”
“You don’t have cancer.”
A feature film version, in the works for years, seems less and less likely—but, as Ames told one website, it’s still theoretically possible. Until then, the show remains available, and eminently rewatchable.
Books about Half-Baked (and Fully Baked) Detectives:
Baked, by Mark Haskell Smith
How to Rob an Armored Car, by Iain Levison
The Man in the Blizzard, by Bart Schneider
Stein, Stoned, by Hal Ackerman