Brooklyn heights: Sky Atlantic's 'Bored to Death' is achingly hip but full of heart
Thursday 24 March 2011
Jonathan Ames has problems. He's been dumped by his girlfriend, who thinks he drinks too much white wine of a slow evening, and who has subsequently moved out of their book-lined Brooklyn apartment leaving him wondering how to pay the rent. As if that weren't bad enough, he's permanently under-employed, almost broke and suffering from a bad on-going case of writer's block.
So what's a man to do? The answer in this case is read Raymond Chandler's noir classic Farewell, My Lovely, smoke some pot, drink some more cheap white wine, and then go on Craigslist and register yourself as a private detective despite the fact that you haven't really got the first clue how to solve any of the cases you subsequently find yourself hired to solve.
Welcome to the world of Bored to Death, HBO's new comedy, which starts on Sky Atlantic next Monday. It's a world in which books, thankfully, still hold the answers to life's most worrying questions, a place where the seemingly ordinary can swiftly spiral into the extremely odd and, most of all, a New York landscape defined not, as is usual, by Manhattan's shimmering lights and celeb-haunted bars, but rather by the Brooklyn brownstones of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens in addition to Brighton Beach and Coney Island's more grimy charms.
It's also strikingly self-referential. Created by Brooklyn author Jonathan Ames and based on a short story he wrote about his fantasy of becoming a private detective, the half-hour comedy would serve as the ultimate in wish-fulfilment were it not for the fact that Ames constantly undercuts his hero's actions, ensuring that this is not the private eye as sardonic Philip Marlowe-esque saviour but an altogether more Quixotic affair.
"There's this great contrast between the character's romance of being a private eye and the reality," says Jason Schwartzman, who plays Jonathan Ames. "My character doesn't really have a clue what he's doing and when he tells his friends he's become a private eye on Craigslist they don't really understand. You know, they all keep saying 'Are you licensed?' There's definitely an element of 'what made you think you could do this, are you crazy?'"
Luckily for Jonathan, not everyone thinks that becoming a private eye is a truly terrible idea. His sometime boss, media magnate George Christopher (played with scene-stealing verve by Ted Danson) is an enthusiastic supporter while his best friend, depressive comic-book artist Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis), finds himself reluctantly dragged along for the ride.
"There's something of a quest about the whole thing," says Danson. "It's about these three guys and their friendship, sure, but it's also about what they're searching for. In Bored to Death there's this idea that by helping people, by solving these crimes, no matter how small, then these characters will all find something better about themselves... of course, they're also having a lot of fun while they're doing it."
That sense of fun is what saves Bored to Death from sinking under the weight of its own self-consciousness. It would be easy to dismiss the show as trying too hard – the hip Brooklyn locations, the shabby chic clothes, the knowingly neurotic dialogue ("In my heart I'm a vegan, but in my mouth I lack discipline," Jonathan remarks at one point), the sharp, stylised credits and most of all the fact that the show is written by a Brooklyn author who just happens to be called Jonathan Ames – were it not for its tone, which is both witty and surprisingly sweet-natured, and the open-hearted way in which it celebrates male friendship.
"I think the reason that people have responded is because they relate to the fact that these guys do really like each other," says Danson. "Everything flows from the fact that the relationships are genuine. As it progresses and you get drawn more into the characters' lives, then you care more about what goes on."
Certainly the central friendships are very different from the usual male bonding we see on screen. This is not a show featuring Entourage-esque backslapping and boasting or a Brit-com in which we are asked to wink approvingly at the laddish hi-jinks on screen. Instead, the friendship between Jonathan, Ray and George is played relatively straight with the laughs arising organically as they all hang out. "It's quite gentle in a way," says Danson. "Yes, you have these occasionally dark scenarios, but it's not a show that asks you to laugh at the characters – and I think that helps it to stand out."
It's also true that where HBO's other comedies, Eastbound & Down, Curb Your Enthusiasm and even Entourage have a mean streak running through them, a sense that the characters are there for the audience to laugh at rather than with, Bored to Death prefers the light-hearted send-up. That difference in tone is very much a part of Ames's quirky but essentially kind-hearted vision. A minor celebrity in Brooklyn – a football shirt with his name on it hangs in Cobble Hill bookstore BookCourt and most people in the area have an
Ames story, or three, to share – he is also the author of three well-reviewed novels, four non-fiction essay collections and a highly praised graphic novel, The Alcoholic.
Crucially all of this work, in whatever genre, has a slightly skewed sweetness at its heart. Ames's characters might scuttle around life's margins, but they do so in a way that you can't help but respond to. "Jonathan has a very offbeat sense of humour and obviously that propels the show," says Schwartzman. "The funny thing is that you start spending time with him and you realise that a lot of this is his life. He's the sort of person to whom odd things just happen, so you find yourself in a bar with him and the next thing you know you're meeting all these crazy people and you start to think, 'oh this is just like an episode of Bored to Death'."
That sense of familiarity is also a product of the show's fourth character: the borough of Brooklyn. Breaking from New York television tradition, which has always suggested that Manhattan's where it's at, Bored to Death chooses instead to eulogise Brooklyn's quirky shops and buggy-laden streets. Jonathan meets clients in Fort Greene Park and Russian restaurant Tatiana's in Brighton Beach, Ray pops in to Bergen Street Comics and hangs around outside the Park Slope Food Coop while George, a Manhattanite to his core, marvels at the offbeat rhythms of life over the bridge. "The setting is very important," says Schwartzman. "It is Brooklyn but it isn't," adds Danson. "It's a fantasy Brooklyn, the way that Jonathan likes to see it."
It's also a strikingly literary show, referencing everyone from Chandler and Nabokov to Oscar Wilde and Zadie Smith. In addition to joking about novelists, Ames's characters are constantly turning to books to solve their personal crises – most memorably when George looks for help from Klaus Kinski's autobiography after being advised to experiment with homosexuality – which serves as a refreshing reminder that not every query in the world can be answered with the click of a button and a quick surf online.
Ultimately, however, what makes Bored to Death work so well is the interplay between the three likeable leads. They seem so relaxed together, so content just to hang out that you can't help but get drawn in to their unrealised dreams and fruitless schemes. For although not a lot happens each week in Jonathan Ames's Brooklyn, time passes with such unforced (and occasionally unfocused) charm that it's impossible to imagine actually being bored.
'Bored to Death' begins on Sky Atlantic HD on Monday 28 March at 10pm
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