It’s a tricky Sunday coming up for fans of finer television everywhere. The Emmys (hosted by the suddenly ubiquitous Neil Patrick Harris) are on that night. Mad Men, refusing to take a breather even for its likely slew of awards, airs an original episode. And HBO debuts a strong new comedy—Bored to Death—while Curb Your Enthusiasm finally returns too.
I can’t help you with Mad Men. But HBO has made things a bit easier: Bored to Death is good, very good—but it’s pilot isn’t, so it wouldn’t be terrible to miss it or see it late. And Curb makes a good return after an off sixth season, but the big attraction—the meta-reunion of the Seinfeld cast on the show—doesn’t get under way until the third episode.
Bored to Death, created by Brooklyn novelist Jonathan Ames, stars Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore, Funny People) as… Jonathan Ames, Brooklyn novelist. The fictional Ames has published one book, is stuck on his second and has just gone through a bad breakup with his girlfriend over his pot-smoking and drinking. (His libation of choice, humiliatingly, is white wine.) Depressed and at loose ends, he drowns his sorrow in pulp detective novels, then, impulsively, decides to advertise himself on Craigslist as a private eye.
In The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster used the device of an author mistaken for a detective to tell an eerie story of existential dread. Bored to Death is not that (though, perhaps as a hat tip, one episode references Auster): it’s sort of the TV equivalent of an indie-film screwball comedy. (Fittingly, uber-downtown director Jim Jarmusch has a guest role as himself in the third episode.) Jonathan finds himself taking on small-stakes cases (suspected infidelity, a missing skateboard) and the series itself has a small-stakes, shaggy-dog charm.
The draggy pilot episode (which HBO has available On Demand and through iTunes) is rather too low-key, though, as it introduces the supporting characters. There’s Jonathan’s best friend Ray (Zach Galifianakis), a cartoonist mired in an unsatisfying relationship with a clingy tightly wound single mom, who seems to see him more as a project than a lover (she withholds sex until he gets, among other things, therapy and a cleansing colonic). And there’s Ted Danson, in a scene-stealing role as George, the grandiose editor of a magazine (seemingly based on New York) that Jonathan freelances for, who uses Jonathan as a sort of on-call personal assistant, pot hookup and liaison to the world of young people. (When he learns about Ray’s colonic, George, desperate not to miss out on a new experience, pleads, “I want a colonic!”)
After the first episode, though, the show finds its stride, as the central triad starts to click and it becomes clear that the show is a detective spoof second and a whimsical comedy of New York mores first. In one episode, Jonathan hooks up with a “radical vegan” helicopter mom (Parker Posey), who sends him on a hilariously inept mission to Sam Spade her son’s skateboard back from a group of street punks. The result is a slapstick foot-, board- and car chase through industrial Brooklyn that ends up colliding with the opening of a hipster locavore restaurant that George is attending because he wants to sleep with the 20-something publicist.
It’s this interplay between the low- and high-life of New York that gives the show its appealing energy (as opposed to Sex and the City, say, which shopped strictly on the high end). And the casting is excellent, not just Danson, whom you might expect to kill in the role, but Schwartzman, who can be too mannered and affected in some roles. Here he’s perfect, maybe in part because his character, Jonathan, is himself playing a role and tends to overthink his own life. (Schwartzman also co-wrote and performs the show’s theme; as usual for HBO, the opening titles—in which the lettering of a pulp novel comes to life—are ingenious.)
And New York generally—Brooklyn in particular—becomes a quirky, neurotic character in this show as it hasn’t in anything HBO’s done since SATC. (Between this, In Treatment, Flight of the Conchords and Boardwalk Empire, by the way, my neighborhood has basically become sick with HBO location shoots. If they pick up Game of Thrones, I expect to see Khal Drogo’s Dothraki horsemen charging through Prospect Park.)
Curb, meanwhile, stopped being appointment viewing for me a couple seasons ago, but it threatens to become so again. The first couple episodes, actually, play largely like an extension of the last season, with the Black family still hanging out at Larry’s, but David seems creatively recharged—at least in the three episodes I’ve seen—perhaps by the challenge of doing a Seinfeld reunion his own way.
But again, that doesn’t get under way for a couple weeks, so feel free to watch the Emmys instead. And you may just see some of HBO’s comedy performers on its stage this time next year.