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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Bored to Death'

The HBO comedy series starring Jason Schwartzman is about a writer turned private detective.

September 18, 2009|Robert Lloyd | TELEVISION CRITIC

Jonathan Ames, a Brooklyn-based writer of fiction and nonfiction, has turned his long short story "Bored to Death" into an HBO situation comedy, also titled, though less aptly, "Bored to Death." Each version revolves around a character named Jonathan Ames, a Brooklyn-based writer of fiction and nonfiction who is having a hard time finishing his second novel and is drinking too much white wine -- which is his idea of drinking less alcohol -- and smoking too much pot. As the series opens, his girlfriend is moving out and -- sad, stymied and under the influence of a Raymond Chandler novel -- he goes onto Craigslist to advertise his services as a private detective: "I'm not licensed but maybe I'm someone who can help you."

The short story and the TV show, which premieres Sunday night, share a premise, some scenes and even some dialogue, but before long they go their very separate ways. The original story is a fairly commonplace exercise in postmodern noir in which an idle gesture leads to violence and murder; the series, which is easily my favorite of the fall season, is something much better -- a shaggy-dog comedy that floats on a cloud of fuzzy romantic optimism, the underlying energy of a location-shot fairy tale New York City, and the talents of its art-house leads: Jason Schwartzman, who plays Jonathan; Zach Galifianakis as cartoonist friend Ray, inspired by Dean Haspiel, the real Ames' collaborator on the graphic novel "The Alcoholic"; and Ted Danson, who plays Jonathan's other friend, a sybaritic, fitfully spiritual old-school magazine editor conceived as equal parts George Plimpton and Christopher Hitchens. (The character's name is George Christopher.)

Schwartzman, who is small and thin and dark, does not resemble Ames, who is tall and bald and buff (and a dozen years older). But the actor embodies the sound of the writer's published prose, which is oddly stiff and formal, almost as if he's afraid of doing injury to the language. Similarly, Jonathan is mostly a study in demureness and good manners, his dialogue marked by such figures as, "Excuse me" and "I don't want to hurt your feelings, but . . . ." This sympathy runs through the series, which displays a kind of respectful regard for the many varieties of human strangeness.

As Jonathan stumbles along to close his cases, usually at some cost to himself (his person, pocketbook or dignity), he also tries to work out his life and love life. (He compulsively shares his own troubles with his clients, and sometimes with his suspects.) The humor comes not so much from the dialogue as from the delivery, the way that Schwartzman, when asked his rates for the first time, reaches back in his mind to some novel and responds, with a confidence increasing across the sentence, "One hundred dollars a day with expenses." Or, after leaving a long phone message for his ex-girlfriend, thinks to hurriedly add, "This is Jonathan."

Because he spent so many years on a hugely popular mainstream sitcom, it is easy to underestimate Danson, but he's an actor who consistently chooses interesting roles and does interesting things with them. (He even dances a little here, recalling an early role in "Body Heat.") Galifianakis plays a character soft and sensitive behind a sardonic front.

We have come to the point now where even the edgier television series of premium and basic cable share identifiable traits and attitudes -- the distance between "Hung" and "Breaking Bad" is not all that far. "Bored to Death" has its antecedents, to be sure -- it is a bit like Martin Scorsese's "After Hours," filtered through the sensibility of a Whit Stillman and sprinkled with "Flight of the Conchords" -- and yet it feels new, because it is so completely itself, consistently itself, a mix of romance, adventure and stoner comedy (there is a lot of pot about) that never abandons the world the rest of us can recognize.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Bored to Death'

Where: HBO

When: 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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