By Darren Franich
Updated August 03, 2020 at 06:12 PM EDT
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You could argue that it’s a little silly to pick on a tiny show like Bored to Death. The HBO comedy has been averaging roughly a quarter of a million viewers this season, a number that barely even looks impressive on YouTube anymore. Or maybe the better comparison for Bored to Death is to an old-timey public access series, the kind of haphazard production a group of locals would organize back when the average local American still had time for hobbies. After all, the concerns of Bored to Death are so concerned with an extremely specific sliver of contemporary Brooklyn — the upper-middle-class Manhattan-expat media-employed all-white corner of town — that I wouldn’t be surprised if the 250,000 viewers who tune in weekly are all concentrated in a few square miles between Prospect Park and the BQE.

But Contrarian Corner has a democratic doorway. We run a need-blind admissions system. If we’re going to deconstruct chipper zeitgeist multimedia megahits, once-great sitcoms, and critical-establishment sensations, then we must also turn our brutal truth-crossbows onto the smaller mediocrities: The unkillable dregs of pop culture, which float like an annoying butterflies and sting like a bees that can’t write believable dialogue. And that is why I’m here to today, my friends in Contrarianism, to loudly proclaim my true feelings about Bored to Death. Specifically, I want to explain how Bored to Death makes me want to travel back in time about nine decades to stop all my various great-grandparents from ever meeting each other, thus preventing any of my immediate blood relatives from ever being born, and therefore ensuring that no one I love will ever have to live in the world that somehow allowed Bored to Death to become a thing.

The show is an embarrassment of riches wasted on meaningless, navel-gazing cuteness. Creator Jonathan Ames is a brilliant essayist whose prose overflows with a profound self-awareness and an ability to invest even the most normal situation with a hilariously bleak sensibility — something which is strikingly lacking in his television show, which can make even the most hilariously bleak situation seem banal and boring.

Bored to Death is actually based on a great Ames short story, but in the translation to the screen, Ames removed the story’s Chandler-esque corners and replaced them with a pair of funny sidekick characters who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a post-Pocahontas Disney flop. Ted Danson has been justifiably praised for investing his George Christopher with a sense of Cary Grant-ish class. But because he’s so unsupported by the series’ writing — after three seasons, George’s primary character trait is still pot-smoking — Danson’s participation in the show is beginning to feel like a brilliant never-ending cameo.

Credit: Jessica Miglio/HBO

Conversely, Bored to Death has achieved the unique distinction of making Zach Galifianakis not funny. His Ray is little more than a series of man-child anxieties — He’s shy! He’s a comic book nerd! He smokes weed! — which were all much more interesting when Kevin Smith was exploring and/or inventing them in the ’90s. (Which make last season’s plotline about Ray’s comic book being purchased by Hollywood look like the least necessary remake of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back ever.)

And as a fictionalized version of Ames, Jason Schwartzman just looks perpetually confused about how to play his nonsensical character. In his non-fiction essays, the real-life Ames created a fascinating, flawed “Jonathan Ames” persona — and the early episodes of Bored to Death seemed to indicate that the fictional Ames had similar flaws. He drank too much, he couldn’t sustain a long-term relationship. The best TV protagonists, I think, are made from their particular character flaws: It’s what makes them great, but also what destroys them. That’s true of the great serialized anti-heroes, like Tony Soprano or The Wire‘s Jimmy McNulty, but it’s also true of the most interesting procedural heroes, like CSI‘s obsessive Gil Grissom or Dr. House before he became unbearable. You could see a version of Bored to Death where Ames’ particular flaws are directly tied to what makes him a good writer, or a good detective, or something.

The problem with Bored to Death‘s Ames — really, the problem with all three main characters — is that their particular character flaws aren’t really presented as flaws. Since the universe they inhabit is entirely comprised of ambient New Yorkers who all have annoying grown-up problems, the main trio’s eternal adolescence is presented as a virtue. In this sense, the show bears a passing resemblance to FX’s majestic Louie, another semi-autobiographical New York comedy-drama. But Louis C.K. infuses Louie with a sense of boundless curiosity, and a willingness to make himself look ridiculous. In Louie, the joke is very often on Louie; in Bored to Death, the conflict is always between our kooky lovable heroes and the scary world outside of their friendship.

Actually, the show that Bored to Death reminds me of the most is Entourage in its last few seasons, when the show became a backslapping montage about totally cool dudes whose only character flaw was occasionally doubting how totally cool they were. That sense of self-congratulatory triumphalism has become HBO’s de facto mode lately, in shows as diverse as True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Hung, and How to Make It in America. (To the network’s credit, it also parodies all that self-congratulation in Eastbound & Down.) Like all of those shows, Bored to Death comes equipped with all the adornments of beautiful modern television: The show has a gorgeously color-saturated comic-strip aesthetic, and it overflows with cool NYC-actor cameos. Like all those shows, Bored to Death is shallower than it has any right to be.

But unlike all those shows, Bored to Death is also unwatchable. And yet, I find myself attracted to it like a moth to a flame. Maybe it’s because I’m a TV addict, and I’m fascinated by well-funded disasters. (I was also addicted to Studio 60 and FlashForward.) Maybe it’s because I keep wanting to see all the show’s talent rise to the occasion. Bored to Death will probably never be canceled by HBO. Isn’t it okay to hope that it might actually justify being on television?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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