Friday, September 11, 2009

Bored to Death in NYC

Last night, HBO premiered its latest comedy series, Bored to Death, with a screening of its first two episodes at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas on 23rd Street, followed by a party at the Tribeca Rooftop. In addition to the show's cast (below), the night lured such celebs and HBO stalwarts as Jason Bateman, Sofia Coppola, Glenn Close, Steve Buscemi, Vanessa Carlton, Mary Steenburgen, comic Todd Barry and SNL's newest addition, Jenny Slate.

Before the screening, HBO President Sue Naegle set a confident tone by noting that "we have so much faith in this show that we called it 'Bored to Death,' despite how tempting that title will be for critics."

Then the show's creator and well-known author Jonathan Ames addressed the crowd. On visits to L.A. to visit his sister, he said, he would always be asked to take meetings with Hollywood networks and production companies. But he never knew why, because although the meetings would be perfectly convivial, full of discussions about favorite books and leaving him with the hilarious impression that L.A. is "incredibly literary," nothing would ever come of them.

Then came a meeting at HBO in New York, where one of the network's producers Sarah Condon asked what he was working on. The answer was a short story called "Bored to Death," in which a hard-drinking and drugging author and freelance journalist, named Jonathan Ames, decides to moonlight as an unlicensed private eye. "I told her I thought it would make a great movie," Ames admitted last night. "Then I remembered where I was, and said, '...or TV series."

The results of that meeting were on the big screen at the Clearview, with the incredibly likable Jason Schwartzman playing Ames' amiable small screen alter-ego, Zach Galifianakis as his bearded slacker artist friend, and Ted Danson as his pot-addicted, id-driven employer at a New York-like magazine.

While watching the pilot episode, I was struck by how different the show starts out from HBO's other recent comedy launch, Hung. I had felt the Hung pilot started out way too slow, taking forever to launch its hero into the escort business because it wanted to make sure to convince us how desperate he was, by serving up blow after blow to his financial and emotional security. Bored to Death takes the opposite tack. Jonathan gets dumped by his girlfriend, who does mention that he should be more of a man of action. He loves Raymond Chandler novels. Boom! Before you know it, he places an ad on Craigslist advertising himself as a private eye. No explanation given.

If you're willing to buy this, however -- and to be fair, maybe we'll get more back story or motivation in episodes to come -- stick with Bored to Death after the pilot. Hung got better and better after that first episode, finally freeing Ray to see clients and have hilarious complications ensue. Rome, too, took 3 or 4 episodes to get juicy after being front-loaded with setup; I have a few friends who quit that show too early, and now regret it. And The Comeback got really good only at the end of its first and -- unfortunately, because by then the show had alienated too many -- only season. More than with broadcast TV, where if a pilot sucks the show may forever suck too, it seems that HBO has a pattern: stick with the show at least through its 3rd or 4th week. You'll usually be rewarded.

Indeed, Episode 2 of Bored to Death is fantastic. Kristen Wiig shows up as Jonathan's client, with the wavy hair and vintage dress of a film noir femme fatale, but the hilarious neuroses and comic delivery that are by now Wiig's trademark. Her story -- and Danson's too, allow for Schwartzman, in his character's puppy-dog dorkiness, to have some really fun comedic and even slapstick moments. And Galifianakis provides, as you would expect, some great sidekick comic relief.

Bored to Death is HBO's broadest comedy in years, and is a refreshing surprise. I heard from some normally tough media critics -- albeit, yes, a lot of women with crushes on Schwartzman -- that the series only gets better through at least the 5 or 6 episodes they've already seen in advance. So check it out, Sunday, September 20 -- up against the Emmys, unfortunately -- at 9:30. It's inheriting the second half of True Blood's time slot, so all you have to do is continue your HBO habit.

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