Down and out in Brooklyn in Bored to Death.

What you're watching.
Sept. 18 2009 1:38 PM

Brownstone Noir

Jason Schwartzman as a Brooklyn writer-turned-detective in Bored to Death.

Parker Posey in Bored to Death. Click image to expand.
Parker Posey in Bored to Death 

On Bored to Death (HBO, Sundays at 9:30 p.m. ET), a sitcom largely written by Jonathan Ames, actor Jason Schwartzman plays a writer named Jonathan Ames. Take that as you will, but understand that we are not on the plane of irreality of Adaptation, in which screenwriter Charlie Kaufman reels into the imagination of "Charlie Kaufman" to produce the unspooling movie. Nor does Bored to Death attempt Philip Roth's Operation Shylock tactic of using "Philip Roth" as a vehicle for weaving between the lanes of art and life. And despite being an homage to detective fiction, the HBO show does not traffic in the City of Glass sort of infinite regress, in which Paul Auster and "Paul Auster" conspire to corkscrew with your head. Bored to Death makes small gestures in these directions—the moment when a copy of an Auster novel appears is a fine piece of superficial metatextuality—but mostly the show is about self-involvement as a topic and a method.

The 30-year-old Jonathan Ames here lives, like all too many writers, in Brooklyn, where he would be struggling to finish a second novel if he could even stand to struggle to start it. The series picks up with his girlfriend moving out, finally fed up with his drinking and drugging. In a last stab at keeping her, Jonathan defends marijuana by saying, "They give it to cancer patients." When she counters, "You don't have cancer," he mopily retorts, "Not yet." The pathetic puppy-dog gaze Schwartzman lifts at this instant encapsulates all that is most compelling about his performance: its soft-pedaled self-pitying. The adventures that follow demonstrate the limits of soft pedaling. At various points, Bored to Death seems nicely restrained, curiously deadpan, and just flat. It is moderate, and it is middling.

Excited for distraction and recently corrupted by Raymond Chandler novels, Jonathan places a Craigslist ad selling his services as a private eye. He begins scrambling along behind missing persons and straying lovers. Bored to Death is at its best when it takes its comic violence seriously and Jonathan grapples with Russian gangsters in the shadows of Brighton Beach. But this realm is far removed from the fatigue-heavy Ames short story that is the basis for the series. On the page, the hero was "bored with reading and bored with being sober and bored with myself and bored with being alive." On-screen, he's just kinda restless, and his exploits involve light slapstick, heavy irony, and ho-hum neurotic anxiety.

You can hardly see the noir here for all the brightness of the brownstone-lined streets. At one point, Jonathan takes on a pro-bono case for an attractive vegan woman who wants to retrieve her son's stolen skateboard. Client and PI share an embrace that topples two glasses of carrot juice. I love Parker Posey, but it feels like a punch line to the unwitting joke of the show's indie-culture pile-on to say that the vegan is played by Parker Posey. Bored to Death is in the key of a mild Sundance flick about a lovelorn sweetheart and the zany dudes who aid and abet him.

The show's lightness would be more bearable if the stories were sharper. Consider the worst episode: Jonathan has a rendezvous with the talented filmmaker and noted hipster totem Jim Jarmusch at a party. The director, thinking that he and Jonathan might work together, gives him a copy of a screenplay with Jonathan's name printed across every page to protect against leaks. A young lady, impressed by Jonathan's connections, takes a shine to him. He starts making out with her; she suggests they go back to the home office of her therapist father. He conscientiously asks her age; she says she's almost 22. You can pretty much write the rest of the episode yourself, give or take a couple good lines in the scene when the dad connects Jonathan's Oedipal issues with his writer's block.

The real Jonathan Ames (who is a Slate contributor), a more productive fellow, has three novels under his belt, each of them to their credit weirder than this creampuff. I Pass Like Nightoperates in a Mary Gaitskill mode of grubby sex and ground-in misery; The Extra Man is a sparkly and expansive number about chasing dreams and trannies; Wake Up, Sir! reads like an awkward homage to P.G. Wodehouse and alcoholic hallucinations. His nonfiction mines his sexual kinks, psychic doldrums, and physical ailments to produce candid anatomies of melancholy. Given the size of the unofficial Ames fan club, it appears that many readers don't mind the shapelessness of the essays. They seem to be devoted to the (charming) persona on view in every baggy paragraph, and Bored to Death seems to be giving them a diluted form of what they crave. Jonathan Ames doesn't do "Jonathan Ames" any great favors here, but it's always good to get your name out there.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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