Jonathan Ames Is Bored to Death

The following is an entirely true and somewhat amazing cascade of events:

Sometime early this decade, probably right around when I finished reading Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, I decided I wanted to write my own detective novel. It was to be nothing short of a blatant rip-off of Christie’s concept—people dying one by one on an island cut off from the rest of civilization—with the small twist that a tried-and-true detective would be there, doubling as the role of the murderer. And because detectives always had such austere names and I had always liked the sound of “Jonathan,” I decided to name my main character Jonathan Ames.

Fast forward two years or so to a shot of me walking through my favorite bookstore. There, on the discount rack with a bright yellow spine, was a book called Wake Up, Sir! by a man named Jonathan Ames. Two days later, I finished reading the funniest book I’d ever picked up.

Now in the fall of 2009, we’ve come full circle. HBO has a new television series based off Ames’ short story, “Bored to Death.” And the main character is none other than a detective named Jonathan Ames.

Crazy, right?

Bored to Death focuses on the struggling writer Jonathan Ames, who advertises his services as an unlicensed private detective on Craigslist because he loves the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler (he places the ad after leafing through an old copy of Farewell, My Lovely). The role of Ames is played unsurprisingly perfectly by Jason Schwartzman. Ames’ stories have always focused on protagonists that are neurotic, deeply introspective, and paradoxically open about their own level of social discomfort. These protagonists are always thinly veiled portraits of Ames himself, whether it’s The Extra Man’s Louis Ives, a recently fired seventh-grade teacher who moves to New York to find himself while dealing with his own sexual perversions, or Wake Up, Sir!’s Alan Blair, a 30-year-old struggling to pen his second novel while dealing with what others tell him is an alcohol problem. So it isn’t surprising to see that he doesn’t even bother with the subtlety in Bored to Death and just names his main character Jonathan Ames (Schwartzman refers to the show as a “double helix of fiction and reality,” the latter being based on Ames’ own romantic misadventures).

Schwartzman’s character in Bored to Death, in fact, is almost exactly like Blair in every way, down to a fondness for sport coats (Schwartzman wears them in almost every scene, Blair prides himself on his sport coats, comparing them to Batman’s utility belt) and the fact that they’re both trying to pen that troublesome second novel. Schwartzman successfully captures the intelligence, the frustration, and yes, the boredom of the struggling artist, much like he does in all his roles. Watching Schwartzman, we understand how his character could write a successful first novel and have a meaningful relationship with his girlfriend Suzanne (played by the two-years-too-young-for-her-role Olivia Thirlby) while also being doomed to failure in both endeavors.

The issue with Ames (the writer) has always been about finding the proper foil for his protagonist. The retired eccentric Henry Harrison was serviceable in The Extra Man; Blair’s valet, Jeeves, is pitch-perfect in Wake Up, Sir! One of the early problems with Bored to Death is its uncertainty regarding Ames’ chief foil. There’s comic strip artist Ray, played by a lower-key Zach Galifianakis, and Ames’ boss George Christopher, played by a more over-the-top Ted Danson (Danson’s character is based off Ames [the writer]’s conception of George Plimpton + Christopher Hitchens). Both Galifianakis and Danson are funny in their roles, but trying to fit in Schwartzman’s interactions with both of them AND all he has to do to solve a case in just 25 minutes can be a bit limiting. The biggest criticism I have after two episodes is that we haven’t seen the comic talents of Schwartzman and Galifianakis played off each other nearly enough: The two have had only three major scenes together, and only one (where they debate who made a more obscure reference, Schwartzman to the Raid on Entebbe, Galifianakis to a falcon hood) was particularly memorable.

Schwartzman goes solo for his detective missions, where most of the humor is derived from his attempt to be Phillip Marlowe, even though he prefers white wine over whiskey, sympathizes with the men he’s chasing, and waxes poetically about his ex-girlfriend. Although these stories are often funny and attract prominent guest stars (like Kristen Wiig in the second episode), whether Bored to Death ultimately succeeds or fails will depend on exactly how it develops foils for its protagonist. Ames (the writer) is at his best crafting fast-paced, back-and-forth dialogue that starts with a small premise and builds, often absurdly, to philosophical ones. In Wake Up, Sir!, receiving a kind note from his aunt makes Blair contemplate his own self-image as “blissfully self-destructive and impulsive.” In Bored to Death, a conversation about the attraction of a big nose (another thing straight out of Wake Up, Sir!) leads Danson to opine, “Nobody’s really loved for themselves.” A line like this is tinged with truth; it’s somewhat provocative but intrinsically not very funny. But how Schwartzman and Danson reach this conclusion—through Danson’s attraction to large noses to Schwartzman’s concern that she’d know you’re only in it for the nose back to Danson’s conclusion that everyone in love is only in it for some banal reason or other—is absurd and, as a result, hilarious. Ames can be brilliant when he balances the funny with the pseudo-philosophical, and conversations like this are when Bored to Death is both comic and captivating with the potential to be as good as any comedy currently on television.*

*Note that I am the one who did NOT participate in the Curb Your Enthusiasm thesis earlier this month.

For now, though, Bored to Death remains a series only with the potential to be good. However, as Alan Blair once said, “That’s something of an auspicious start, but that’s why they have the phrase auspicious start, because one often starts that way.”

2 responses to this post.

  1. Sue them Tim – they have plagiarized your “intellectual property”.

    Reply

  2. Posted by fiona on October 8, 2009 at 10:54 PM

    Very weirded out by the “did you sodomize her” joke??Can any one explain why I now feel that all men want is to sodomize 16 year olds. A clanger if ever there was one.

    Reply

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