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Hipsters: the sitcom

Bored to Death is full of listless irony

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The thing about most of the so-called “comedies” on HBO and Showtime is that they’re generally not actually funny. Not that they attempt to be funny and fail; shows like Weeds, Hung, Nurse Jackie, Californication and Entourage are really more like dramas with occasional comedic moments, or in some cases humor so dark and caustic that it’s unlikely to ever induce laughter. Regardless of their quality (which varies), these shows certainly aren’t comedies in the traditional sense.

So it’s a bit of a relief, then, that the new Bored to Death (HBO, Sundays, 9:30 p.m.) is blatantly comedic, and clearly doesn’t take itself seriously. Since HBO’s genuinely funny Flight of the Conchords is likely gone for good, the network could really use some original programming with a goofy sense of humor. Unfortunately Bored is also far too smug and weak-willed to actually be funny, but at least it’s sometimes light on its feet and has few pretensions to profundity.

One of those pretensions comes right up front, as the main character shares a name with the show’s creator, Jonathan Ames. The fictional Jonathan, like the real one, is a novelist in New York City, although the TV version, played by Jason Schwartzman, languishes in relative obscurity, having completed only one moderately successful novel and totally blocked on starting the next one. Instead of working on his nonexistent book, Jonathan wastes time drinking wine and smoking pot, hanging out with his comic-book-artist best friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis, disappointingly restrained) and his wealthy, miserable editor George (Ted Danson). Oh, and also moonlighting as the world’s most inept private detective.

The Details

Bored to Death
Two stars

It’s that last element that should give Bored its hook, but Ames (the real one) seems only tangentially interested in detective comedy. Jonathan posts a Craigslist ad as a lark after finding solace in old pulp novels following his girlfriend’s departure, and he views being a private detective as a romantic literary pursuit rather than an actual vocation. But these cases would embarrass Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett with their slapdash simplicity, and Ames never pushes them far enough into absurdity for the comedy to make up for it. By the third episode, there isn’t even a case to solve; it’s like the whole premise of the show is just an afterthought.

Bored ends up another show about an entitled creative-class white guy with girl problems. It’s only an improvement on the execrable Californication, which also follows a blocked writer who pines for his ex, because Schwartzman gives Jonathan an appealing hangdog, self-deprecating quality that invites forgiveness. Too bad the rest of the show has an insufferable snottiness to it, from its hipster affectations (the mystery-free third episode revolves around a soporific guest turn from filmmaker Jim Jarmusch as himself) to its superficial characters. Ames lazily appropriates tired sitcom tropes (Ray has a nagging wife who withholds sex; George constantly calls Jonathan at inopportune moments) without even so much as a wink at the audience.

If the show were willing to take more chances, to be as silly and surreal as Flight of the Conchords (or even the short-lived, similarly conceived NBC series Andy Barker, P.I.), it could be a welcome addition to the HBO lineup. And Schwartzman (who’s worked with the likes of Wes Anderson, David O. Russell and Judd Apatow), Galifianakis (a fearless, deeply weird stand-up comedian) and Danson (who’s loosened up tremendously as an actor in recent years) certainly have the chops to pull something like that off. Here, though, they’re just sitting around in sweaters being vaguely ironic.

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