Jonathan Ames’ literary voice infuses HBO’s new comedy “Bored to Death,” and that’s mostly a bad thing. While there is something distinctive (if not particularly original) about his neurotic Jewish alter ego played by Jason Schwartzman, the series proves too precious and quirky for its own good. Of the handful of episodes previewed, only the third — which conspicuously departs from the basic premise — exhibits the madcap attitude that the first two reach for and miss, and by then, it’s a little late to stave off unflattering reviews invoking the title.
Schwartzman is a writer rather lazily named Jonathan Ames, a blocked novelist rendered even more impotent by the departure of his girlfriend (“Juno’s” Olivia Thirlby) because he drinks too much (just white wine, he insists) and smokes too much pot. Impulsively — and if we’re to buy the title, mostly out of boredom — he posts an ad on Craigslist volunteering his services as an amateur detective.
The ad yields predictably minor cases — the first involving a missing college student, the second an investigation into whether a man is being unfaithful. That both clients are young women seems to dovetail with the protagonist’s mix of horniness, loneliness and whininess.
The third installment, notably, drops this formula, as Jonathan is approached by offbeat director Jim Jarmusch to work on a screenplay, yielding broadly comic results. But then it’s back to stakeouts and finding missing skateboards — the kind of cases that seldom commanded Sam Spade’s attention.
The tone also veers unevenly with Ames’ supporting cast, which includes his sexually frustrated married friend (if that’s not redundant) Ray, played by “The Hangover”-enhanced Zach Galifianakis, and Jonathan’s substance-abusing, womanizing editor George (Ted Danson). In Danson’s outlandish character, frankly, resides a livelier, potentially more interesting and significantly better show. Alas, he drops in all too briefly, though his screen time does seem to expand in later episodes.
Ultimately, “Bored” feels like a rather wan, younger, low-stakes version of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” — and winds up demonstrating the gap between literature and television. Schwartzman’s performance, in particular, feels too stiff and mannered — a writer’s first-person narrative awkwardly unleashed, with all its attendant quirks and eccentricities. Nor does it help that the show is paired with “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” inasmuch as its own focus on trifles pales by comparison.
By that measure, this show isn’t terrible but on most fronts proves a failed experiment — the feeling of ennui isn’t necessarily fatal, mercifully, but the rewards are inconsistent enough to curb your enthusiasm.