In season two of Bored to Death, George (Ted Danson) and Ray (Zach Galifianakis) sit next to each other on a single bed while Jonathan (Jason Schwartzman) shows them, on the pine bookshelf of his childhood bedroom, his collection of original Tarzan novels. George is wide-eyed; Ray holds a bag of ice to where George, stoned, accidentally shot him in the head with a rubber bullet earlier in the evening as they tried to rescue Jonathan from blackmailers. ‘I just really wanna thank you guys for coming to my rescue,’ says Jonathan. To George, who has just been diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness, Ray says, ‘I don’t like talking on the phone that much, but you can call me any time … I won’t pick up, but you can leave me a message’. They’re smiling at each other: ‘This is wonderful’, declares George.
With tales of male friendship being the meat and three veg of American film and TV, I was stupefied when Bored to Death was axed by HBO in December last year, because of a decline in ratings during its third season. While the guillotine fell in America, Bored to Death made a quiet free-to-air debut here on ABC1. (Season 3 is currently airing on Showtime.) Given the show’s 10.05pm Friday screening time, you could be forgiven for being at the pub, blinking and having missed it.
Dubbed ‘a spoof-noir comedy’ by some, the show was based on a short story by Jonathan Ames called ‘Bored to Death: A Noir-Otic Story’, which appeared in Issue 24 of McSweeney’s in 2008. (For a hilariously drunk – but strikingly coherent – accidental retort from Ames about the show’s cancellation, I strongly recommend this clip of him at the 2012 Writers Guild Awards.) From the George-Ray-Jonathan threeway scene described earlier, though, typical of every episode’s ending, it’s obvious that Bored to Death is really a noir-ish buddy show: the labyrinthine plotlines strewn with femme fatales create complex pickles for Jonathan, George and Ray to weave each other out of, reaffirming their commitment to one another.
The show’s premise is simple: Jonathan is a struggling Brooklyn writer – and fictionalised version of the show’s creator – who advertises his services as an unlicensed private detective on Craigslist (an online Classifieds site). George is a Renaissance man, magazine editor, and an impressively functional pothead. Ray writes and illustrates his own comic book, Super Ray – and is an impressive pothead. Yet, more than these cursory traits, Ames’ subtitle points to what truly defines these men and their friendship: they are noir-otic to the core. While navigating shadowy noir mazes of betrayal and blackmail – littered with literary references and large doses of slapstick comedy – they neurotically blab on and on about their feelings, fears and anxieties.
Jonathan, George and Ray, like most classical noir men, are always on the brink of being ruled by some malevolent psychic force, though they are usually comically so. As film writer Foster Hirsch says of these traditional hardboiled men of the 30s and 40s in The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, many noir protagonists were ‘the playthings of designing women, [and] of their own dark, subterranean inclinations’. In Bored to Death it’s as if the close but silent and emotionally constipated male friendships of classic noir have been given license to open up – and, once unleashed, these males can’t stop talking. Perhaps this is because, as Mistress Florence (Kristen Johnston), an S & M Madam from season two, says of her clients, ‘there are so many stories – everyone’s in so much pain’. Or, as George responds to Jonathan’s question about why the trio aren’t emotionally available: ‘We are … Just not to women.’
In Bored to Death, existential gloom is only ever just out of sight, as George confesses to a probing drug and alcohol counsellor: ‘I put on a brave front and all that, but on the inside I tear at myself with claws.’ Jonathan, when worrying that his penis is ‘tiny’, coins a term that aptly encapsulates the mutual mental torment keeping these buddies together, shrieking ‘I’m committing mentacide – my brain is attacking itself!’
Mainstream American film and television relies heavily on male friendships – from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Lethal Weapon, American Pie and The Hangover films to TV shows like Starsky and Hutch and the hugely successful Entourage – and survives in part by continually reaffirming certain types of heterosexual buddy relationships as a social ideal. But the fact that Bored to Death’s buddies navigate existence together in quite a neurotic way is perhaps what eventually alienated some viewers. As Tablet’s Jacob Silverman puts it: ‘[…] neurosis was the show’s true star. But that’s the problem.’ And though neurotic men restlessly inhabit the history of American film and television (Woody Allen is, of course, the bespectacled and babbling archetype), they are not often featured in close friendships. Perhaps for some viewers these unstable specimens are less palatable when multiplied, or not set off by an exemplar of stoic manliness.
When George, who’s in his sixties, faces a serious illness, he says to his doctor, ‘I can’t die. I haven’t figured anything out’. For the men in Bored to Death, contemporary life can be confounding; things are rarely what they seem, and there is always something to be learned. Their ‘buddy system’ is thus a strategy for survival, protecting and defending them from harm. Selfishly, I’m very disappointed that this distinctive male trio has been broken up. I’ll miss my stoned buddies – like they would miss each other.
Kate Harper is a Killings Film and TV columnist. She studied Cinema at the University of Melbourne and now works as a freelance writer.