As much as I hate to say it, there’s no mystery behind why HBO’s Bored to Death hasn’t inspired the kind of cult following it had hoped for. The witty series is just a little too ambitious, unfocused and misguided to pack everything it hopes into a thirty-minute time slot while still giving the characters an opportunity to dazzle as they are struggling to do amid all the weird plot twists and turns. Bored to Death tries to do too much and lets its writing get in the way. Someone needs to tell this show to relax.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with it. The premise is engaging enough: a young, struggling writer (Jason Schwartzman’s Jonathan Ames), who had met with brief success but keeps falling victim to the cruel whims of the publishing world, decides to moonlight as an “unlicensed” private detective, motivated, of course, by his own fascination with noir fiction. He finds out that life doesn’t always follow a mapped-out plot when his misadventures lead him on a series of wild goose chases and land him a big steaming heaps of trouble. His friend Ray Hueston (Zach Galifianakis) represents the normality of his life before alter-ego-hood, when he was merely a struggling, sniveling loser. Hueston remains that loser, though he contributes what he can to Ames’ antics. George Christopher (Ted Danson), the aging, quietly panicking editor of a large, failing New York magazine, represents pretty much the opposite side of Ames—his ambitious, adventurous, and—yes—bored side that leads him down this bizarre path in the first place.

The premiere of Season 2 pretty much suggests that the show will continue along the same lines it established in its lukewarm first season. Ames is teaching adult creative writing classes at night now, which could turn out to be a promising twist if it seamlessly introduces new characters who can jazz up the comedy and add some fresh layers to the show. On the other hand, it could prove to provide just another unnecessary angle from which to view Ames in a show that is already spread too thin. Season 2 also introduces a series of new conflicts for Hueston and his girlfriend, and it looks like we might soon be finding out if an unattached Hueston is funnier in his “lachrymose” disposition than he is the rest of the time, when he’s merely suffering from low-grade depression.

It would be downright dishonest to say that the acting in this show falls anywhere sort of marvelous, or that the chemistry between the characters is less than magical. It never would have dawned on me that Schwartzman, Galifianakis and Danson, who have repeatedly been praised for mastering their disparate kinds of humor, would play off each other so perfectly in a single program. The scenes where these unlikely characters are thrown together, in any combination, are deeply satisfying. It would be perfectly sufficient if the show was “about” nothing at all except the travails of these few struggling career men at different points in their lives.

But, plainly, this “fake private eye” thing really gets in the way of the laughs. When Ames prepares to embark on his foolish thrill-seeking nightlife adventures, crawling through the underbelly of filthy New York, I get up to grab a drink from the kitchen. When he gets an unexpected call from his friend Hueston or sits down at a table with Christopher for cocktails, I rush back to the TV. These latter scenes are fresher because the actors play off each other so well. The heavily scripted, contrived, detective shtick, on the other hand, is always highly predictable and much more slapstick. It actually brings a kind of dullness to Schwartz’s character that I find inconsistent with the rest of his performance, and it exiles the other two men. I realize that these segments are written in homage to cinematic and literary trope, but must they get wrapped up in the same era’s style of comedy? I say cool it with the P.I. stuff. We’ve got enough to go on with the normal life struggles of these funnymen already.

Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Zach Galifianakis, Ted Danson

Created By: Jonathan Ames

Network: HBO

Airtime: Sunday, 10 p.m. EST

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