Life After Cancellation: “Bored to Death”
Raising a glass of white wine to the 24 episodes of HBO’s hipster-noir-detective-comedy, which was taken off the air a decade ago.
Before he ever published a complete work of fiction, Ernest Hemingway regarded himself as a literary messiah. What set him apart from his contemporaries, he believed, was his ability to impress the critics while titillating the masses. His innovative style and voice achieved the modernist vision of writers like Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound without their inaccessibility. His stories featured the sex, booze, and salacious dope that made Gatsby so popular, but they weren’t cloaked in the floral adverbs and Victorian trappings that prevented Fitzgerald’s prose from feeling truly modern. “My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows,” Hemingway wrote to the publisher Horace Liveright a year before The Sun Also Rises came out. “There is no writing in it that anybody with a high-school education cannot read.”
Think what you will about Hemingway—and his biography gives plenty of reasons to think unpleasant thoughts—but aiming both high and low is a noble artistic endeavor. Sure, it means an artist is appealing to crude tastes, but it’s also a dual validation of craftsmanship and resonance—the latter being a strong marker of empathy. The creative expression of which, in my opinion, is something our world can never have too much of. Bored to Death, author Jonathan Ames’s genre-blurring HBO series, came close to achieving Hemingway’s ideal, at least until HBO turned the lights off in 2011. After three eight-episode seasons, fans were left with heavy hearts, not to mention an unresolved incest plot.
The show was ostensibly cancelled for a viewership nosedive. Between seasons two and three, average viewers plummeted from 927,000 to 225,000. These figures, however, don’t account for “non-traditional” screenings. Guess what else happened between seasons two and three? HBO launched its streaming platform, HBO Go, which surely appealed more to Bored to Death’s target demographic than other programs. But broader factors influenced the network’s decision to pull the plug, including the need to clear space for its bursting and admittedly formidable pipeline. Girls and Veep premiered in 2012. Silicon Valley in 2014. Had Bored to Death existed on planet Netflix or Prime, there’s a good chance it would have died another day.
Before we pick through the bones, here’s a quick synopsis: Jason Schwartzman stars as Jonathan Ames, a struggling writer who moonlights as an unlicensed private detective. (To avoid confusion, the character will subsequently be referred to as “Jonathan” and the creator as “Ames.”) The show follows Jonathan around Brooklyn as he boondoggles his way through cases, relationships, and his long-suffering second novel. Joining his escapades are his best friend Ray, a comic book artist whose hero’s origin story involves the confluence of his genitals and the subway’s third rail, and Jonathan’s mentor George, a magazine editor diagnosed in one episode as “a marijuana addict with narcissistic personality disorder.” Ray and George are played, respectively and hilariously, by Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson.
Ames is able to poke fun at noir tropes—the morally ambiguous protagonists, the devious femme fatales, the formulaic plots—while demonstrating a genuine respect for the genre’s ability to tell stories that rove the crevices of the human soul.
Texturally, Bored to Death feels like what you’d get if Wes Anderson directed The Big Lebowski. Ames’s Brooklyn is simultaneously real and dream-like. The food co-ops and breastfeeding support meetings, to which Ray justifies his attendance because “the male nipple is dormant,” are easily recognizable. The shadowy alleys and two-bit grifters are less so, but they create a credible underbelly that augments the show’s noirish aspirations. Bored to Death, to be clear, is a comedy. But it’s also genre fluid. This mutability confounded a number of viewers (and arguably HBO’s marketing team) who weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Its attitude toward detective fiction, for instance, lands nebulously between parody and homage. Ames is able to poke fun at noir tropes—the morally ambiguous protagonists, the devious femme fatales, the formulaic plots—while demonstrating a genuine respect for the genre’s ability to tell stories that rove the crevices of the human soul.
In some ways, Jonathan is a hologram of the hard-boiled, hard-drinking Bogart private dick. He drinks exclusively white wine because, in his words, “I tend to black out on the brown stuff.” It’s unfair, however, to dismiss the character as a caricature. Jonathan is a flawed and complex mensch. He is earnest, anxious, insecure, emotionally honest (even when he’s behaviorally dishonest) and, like all good writers, incurably curious. He may be less “manly” than his literary forebears, but he’s also a better man. One of his primary motivations for pursuing private investigating is altruism. “I’m not licensed,” he writes in his Craigslist ad, “but maybe I’m someone who can help you.” Jonathan’s capacity for empathy is super-human. He commiserates with everyone, even (and maybe especially) the bad guys who hold him at gunpoint in various episodes. The show’s most uproarious and tender moments, though, are reserved for interactions between the main characters.
The three leads are quirky, privileged man-children who suffer from various neuroses that they address or repress through self-medicating. Mary Jane, the glue that bonds the triumvirate, is arguably the fourth lead. The ubiquitous stoner humor provides ballast against some of the darker plotlines, and the prim language the characters use to describe their vice is particularly delightful. “I’ve already vaporized two bags of pot,” George says when explaining why he can’t save Jonathan from a couple of kidnappers. (George and Ray do ultimately launch a rescue mission because, as George tells Ray while they get incredibly baked in the car first, Jonathan is like the Lindbergh baby to him). More than the quick laughs, the group’s friendship offers a pleasant contradiction to the portraits of generational conflict that increasingly dominate our culture. Jonathan and Ray are thirty years George’s junior, but there’s no OK-boomer hostility or reproachful judgment in their attitude toward each other. Jonathan values George’s life experience and frequently seeks his counsel. George, in turn, views his younger compatriots as the key to preserving his vitality.
Part of Ames’s brilliance lies in his ability to harness this dynamic and convert it into high- and lowbrow energy. When George is diagnosed with prostate cancer in season two, for example, he sees it as karmic revenge for his rampant sexual history. “I’ve been living like a demented god,” he tells Jonathan. Ames mines the situation for all the slapstick gold he can find—George’s female urologist has rigged up stirrups for her male patients; the image of Ted Danson in a hospital gown and the gynecological position is indelible—but George’s despair allows Ames to develop poignant themes. “I can’t die,” George says, “I haven’t figured anything out yet.” Jonathan consoles him by emphasizing that he’s accomplished so much more than Jonathan ever will as a failing writer and inept detective. This snaps George out of his self-pity and prompts a line that captures the show’s ethos: “Pay attention to a dying man. Keep doing what you’re doing,” he tells Jonathan. “It’s not boring. That’s all that counts in life.”
Ames’s personal theory, which the show presents but doesn’t force-feed or moralize, is that one solution to boredom is to lead a double-life. Most of us already lead double lives, albeit in less dramatic ways than moonlighting as private detectives, and the show’s de-stigmatization of this survival strategy is a refreshing message.
The triumph of Bored to Death is that it prescribes a tangible antidote to boredom. I’m not talking about the tedium of waiting behind a group order at Subway. I’m talking about the agony of existential, Godot-level boredom. On the surface, the ennui of the Brooklyn bourgeoise might not feel like the most effective avenue to approach such a serious topic with a mass audience. This is, after all, a world that outsiders are more likely to feel schadenfreude for than sympathy. But that’s unfortunate because it’s an authentic world. Ames is drawing from experience, and as cliche as it sounds, authenticity is art’s most potent medium. Ames’s personal theory, which the show presents but doesn’t force-feed or moralize, is that one solution to boredom is to lead a double-life. This is a hypothesis he has developed in his writing, most notably in his multi-genre book The Double Life Is Twice as Good, and embraced through his lesser known career as an amateur boxer. Most of us already lead double lives, albeit in less dramatic ways than moonlighting as private detectives, and the show’s de-stigmatization of this survival strategy is a refreshing message.
When I think about Bored to Death’s cancellation, I’m reminded of how Hunter S. Thompson described Oscar Acosta, his friend and lawyer: “There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” It’s a fitting elegy for the show (and, yes, the inspiration for Panic! At the Disco’s fourth album). There really is some kind of scarce and exotic quality to this type of story. It’s not that it’s an anti-hero comedy, a genre HBO has mainstreamed with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep, and The Righteous Gemstones. It’s that Bored to Death is considerably less cynical and considerably more empathetic than every other anti-hero comedy. I think it’s sad that a show with this valence is the one that doesn’t make it.
The cancellation sucked then and it sucks now. The three leads all reportedly loved working together, and the merry-go-round of guest stars (Jenny Slate, Patton Oswalt, Kristen Wiig, and Kevin Bacon to name a few) suggests the set was a coveted vacation destination within the industry. Most devastatingly, Ames was in the zone when HBO’s eviction notice arrived. His creative output has never been called prolific—like gout, it comes in bursts—but the floodgates were open in 2011. The fact that he was forced to see his show end with an incestuous cliffhanger was cruel. (In the unintended finale, Jonathan grapples with the discovery that he and the woman he’s been sleeping with were fathered by the same sperm donor). Ames caught some undeserved flak.
“I wasn’t trying to go crazy with the incest idea,” he later told Vulture. “I was trying to comment that in this modern age, it’s more of a mathematical possibility [for accidental incest to occur].” Considering the number of true stories about sperm donors who have more progeny than Zeus, this shouldn’t be seen as perverted or taboo. If anything, it illustrates the shamelessly honest and sagacious beauty of Ames’s worldview.
Little needs to be said about why the show is even more relevant to our lives today. Over the past year, many of us have felt like the pickles sliding listlessly down the diner window in Billy Madison. Bored to Death offers the kind of comic and cosmic relief we could all use. Its niche premise and setting may have alienated some viewers, but at its heart, it’s an inspirational treatise on the human condition and our restless search for meaning. It’s genre-bending because life is genre-bending. It’s pure and it’s sordid because, well, such is life. FL