TV Review: BORED TO DEATH; mildly noirish, not very moreish

My expectations were perhaps too high for Bored To Death; based on its eclectic cast, an appealing premise, and the reputation of HBO. So my heart sank when the pilot, "Stockholm Syndrome" was shown to be such an uninteresting, humorless, lethargic chore that utterly failed to amuse... Created by Jonathan Ames, Bored To Death's lead character is a pointless proxy of the author, also a writer named Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman.) The fictional Ames is struggling with writer's block in Brooklyn as he works on his sophomore novel, but a fondness for Raymond Chandler's oeuvre inspires in him a unique distraction, as he's sets himself up as an unlicensed P.I on Craigslist. In the pilot, Ames tackles his first case: to find a female client's missing sister, whom she assumes has been kidnapped by her meth-head British boyfriend Vincent (Richard Short.) Quite why the woman doesn't go to the police before entrusting a private eye with no credentials is anyone's guess, particularly as it's possible her sibling is lying dead in a gutter somewhere -- but that's the least of this episode's problems. For a TV show poised to be a dark, idiosyncratic gumshoe detective series, most of the mysteries would barely give Scooby Doo's writers a mental workout. For instance, in the pilot Ames simply follows his client's initial hunch, asks a few questions, bribes a barman and hotel worker, then finds his quarry in a hotel room, where the circumstances behind the girl's disappearance are revealed to be pretty innocuous. I guess the banality is supposed to be part of the joke, as Ames is expecting an exciting lifestyle ripped straight from the pages of the crime novels he enjoys, but instead just ends up traipsing around the city in the rain, wasting his own cash because he forgot to ask for expenses. If you want to watch a lively Chandler-esque thriller with a modern twist, I suggest you seek out Shane Black's superb Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. There was nothing about Bored To Death's pilot to get me excited, no matter how much I was willing it to succeed. The casting is cool, though -- spoon-faced Schwartzman as the wannabe-gumshoe makes for a personable lead; Ted Danson reprises his Frobisher character from Damages as pot-addict millionaire publisher George Christopher; and hirsute Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) as Ames's comic-book illustrator pal Ray is an affable presence -- but there just isn't much to keep you engaged with their characters. There's mild improvement as the show ambles on from its terrible pilot, but only episode 3's "The Case Of The Missing Screenplay" can be classed as a genuinely good half-hour. And that's because it's less case-of-the-week and instead gives us a more personal misadventure for Ames when he loses an important screenplay in the office of a psychiatrist whose jailbait daughter he nearly slept with. It also features indie director Jim Jarmusch in a two-scene cameo that's funnier than most of the show around it. The comedy's flat and uninspired for the most part, basically, with a snooty tone. The real-life Ames may have written popular comic memoirs, but he doesn't nail what's required in a television comedy-drama. The actors give it their best, and are single-handedly the reason to persevere, but they're stuck with rather bland material delivering weak, obvious punchlines. Oddly, it's a fairly pleasant viewing experience, once you don't expect to be moved to laughter very often, but even as a quirky drama there's just no real substance to anything. Every episode is over before it's started, nothing much happens to lodge a memory in your head, and so it continues for eight hours. There's some fun spotting the guest-stars (Parker Posey as a yoga-loving neighbour, Patton Oswalt as a gadget shopkeeper, Romany Malco as a gay escort, Oliver Platt as a rival editor, John Hodgman as a book critic), who acquit themselves well, but few are around long enough to leave a lasting impression. Overall, I can't help thinking Bored To Death would be improved if it spent more time away from Ames's cases, because there are moments when the focus on his everyday life is actually more entertaining. Ames has recently split from girlfriend Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby), and I'd happily watch a relationship drama about a 30-year-old writer trying to get his love life in order with the distractions of his two outrageous friends. It takes until episode 6's "The Case Of The Beautiful Blackmailer" before the three regular even share the screen together, which is a very strange creative choice. It's a show that uses its first season to explore its own limitations, strengths and weaknesses, but doesn't really accomplish much over eight episodes. There are signs of a good show here, particularly once it becomes less about Ames and more about three pals fooling around together -- so for that reason, and assurances that season 2's a marked improvement, I won't write-off Bored To Death just yet, but season 1's very mediocre.
WRITER: Jonathan Ames, Donick Cary & Martin Gero DIRECTOR: Alan Taylor, Tucker Gates, Paul Feig, Adam Bernstein & Nicole Holofcener CAST: Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, Zach Galifianakis, & Olivia Thirlby TRANSMISSION: Mondays, Sky Atlantic, 10.15PM

Dan Owen hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.