“Take a Dive”
November 8th, 2009
I was going to write about how it’s been a while since I’ve checked in with Bored to Death here at Cultural Learning before I realized that, in fact, I’ve never checked in on it at all. I watched the pilot and was intrigued if not overly engaged, and since that point I’ve sort of been watching the show off and on while following critics’ reactions to the series. So, instead of reaffirming previous statements about the show or potentially offering a different point of view, I need to start from the beginning.
I like this show, but I’m having trouble falling in love with it. There’s something about Ames’ style and the way the show is being organized that keeps us as an audience at a distance, which the pilot was indicative of: there were logical leaps and bounds that were simply never explained about why Jonathan would ever become a private detective. And while I’m aware that part of the show’s charm is how uncomfortable Jonathan can be in that environment, and that the randomness of some of the cases often gives the show a unique sort of tone, I wanted to be able to watch “Take a Dive” and completely buy into the character development it seemed to imply. This show is full of great actors and some very solid material, but there a few points in this finale where I questioned less this individual episode (which I really enjoyed) and more how, precisely, these kinds of developments haven’t taken place up to this point.
The show has sort of been meandering around the same themes for a while, and the finale was largely a vessel through which Jonathan, George and Ray all find some sense of purpose in their largely aimless existences. Because of the talent involved, this episode goes well, but I do wish that the investigation of that aimlessness had been a bit more even.
There’s a really nice scene in this one where George and his ex-wife Priscilla are in bed, and George observes that they’ve finally reached the third act: Married, Divorced, and now Lovers. He evokes the adage that there is never actually a third act in life, but what’s interesting about Bored to Death is that it was actually missing the Second Act. This episode was a nice cap-off to the season, and moments like the final scene of George and Jonathan being glad they’re in each other’s lives and play boxing around the ring in the darkened theatre are indicative of the camaraderie that the show has occasionally considered. It felt like a goodbye to a show of characters that had really grown, which was odd considering that we never really got the second act where any of that growth could have taken place. The pilot was so quick to rush into Ames’ Private Eye business as the show’s procedural hook that it never bothered to really contextualize it within his life.
It took this episode, as he lies post-coital with Stella (Jenny Slate, pre-SNL), for him to realize that perhaps the reason he was unable to complete his novel (which was the end of season’s slow-burning serialized development started a while back with Bebe Neuwirth as his editor) is because he wasn’t writing about something exciting like his work as a private detective. However, this has been staring him in the face for a while, and the show has just been slow to have him pick up on it. Never mind that he actually did write about it for the comic that he and Ray put together following the show’s best episode, featuring Ray and George getting high while Jonathan gets victimized. It’s as if the pilot rushed its way into being both Acts One and Two (establishing Jonathan’s problem of both writer’s block and commitment issues), and then it just sort of meandered through Brooklyn for a while, wavering in quality until it reached its Act Three and brought its characters some sense of closure.
I don’t think this is a terrible thing, as those episodes have been divisive but have also made some loyal fans out of those who enjoy the show’s variable sense of humour. I thought that the finale wasn’t firing on all cylinders so much as it was letting the characters do the work. Paul Feig directed the episode in a very laidback style, so scenes like Jonathan and Stella playing nerf basketball were punctuated with beats like Jonathan biting at the ball in her hand, or the pile of books falling over in the midst of their play. The episode also resists one of its two potential punchline (pun unintended): while the fights themselves were predictable (our heroes are too hapless to win, and you knew that the first two fights would split), the show gave Stella her less than graceful exit (urinary tract infection) but actually left George standing tall. Despite my expectation, Priscilla wasn’t lying about Antrem’s heart condition, which really shocked me – I kept expecting the credits to switch to Antrem and Priscilla having sex and celebrating the ruse, but it didn’t happen.
And I think that shows you were the show is ultimately at when it comes to those type of stories. It really loves these characters, perhaps because Schwartzmann is playing a version of Ames himself and perhaps because they’re just having a lot of fun with this great cast. The episode takes some shortcuts to pretend as if there has been consistent development all season, like Ames playing private detective and searching out his would-be blackmailer using his P.I. skills, but in doing so it was ultimately engaging. I like the show better in this mode than I do during some of its more aimless journeys, and considering just how great this cast is I’m willing to follow them into a second season knowing that things might be just as uneven all over again.
At the very least, I wasn’t bored.
- Loved seeing Sarah Vowell (who, alongside being a regular contributor to public radio, also voiced Violet in The Incredible) covering the fights, and those initial sets of interviews were all pretty great: I especially enjoyed Ray’s opponent being so masochistic, a runner that the show put to good use but didn’t overuse.
- John Hodgman was another great edition to the cast, and as was Oliver Platt for that matter. The show did well with guest stars along the way, and I hope that can continue in season two.
- And speaking of continuing: while some episodes didn’t give him much to do, and he’s a big movie star now, I hope that Zach Galifianakis has time to do Season Two.