An elegant television ode to writer’s block

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Ted Danson (right) in a still from the HBO series ‘Bored To Death’.
Ted Danson (right) in a still from the HBO series ‘Bored To Death’.

George Plimpton, the legendary founding editor of The Paris Review, used to throw himself headlong into his subjects, turning, for example, sports journalism into a participatory exercise. He sparred with Sugar Ray Robinson and played golf on the PGA tour. Imagine then, if you will, a character quite a bit like him — as silver-haired, as swashbuckling — another magazine editor named George, played by the patently irresistible Ted Danson. If this is not the best of all possible cable television worlds, I know not what is.

In my top scene from the HBO series Bored To Death, Danson’s George Christopher has typed up an uncharacteristically long and enraged screed against the editor of GQ. His protégé and the show’s leading man, Jonathan, is trying to appeal to his better instincts and to persuade him against printing this. It appears to be of no avail, and — in a desperate last ditch effort — Jonathan tells Christopher that this is the kind of thing the much-loathed GQ editor would do. “No,” says Christopher, as he triumphantly hits ‘send’ and throws the column out into the world. “It wouldn’t be as well-written.”

That line socked me like an uppercut to the subconscious. I have rarely recognised myself more vividly in a fictional character, in the recklessness and hubris and self-righteous justification of what is, to be honest, a weak but entertaining bit of writing. Bored To Death — a comedy by the novelist Jonathan Ames about a novelist who happens to be called Jonathan Ames — rests on the shoulders of such magnificently well-developed characters, each of whom could worthily waltz off into their very own novel. Danson’s editor is, of course, my spirit animal, but around the corner sits under-appreciated cartoonist Ray, played by Zach Galifianakis at his absolute best, and in the centre, taking it all in, is Jonathan himself, played with definitive leading-man-less-ness by Jason Schwartzman.

A still from the HBO series ‘Bored To Death’
A still from the HBO series ‘Bored To Death’

Schwartzman’s Ames is a miserable hero, a writer having written one novel and suffering the dread of the sophomore slump. Freshly dumped and unable to creatively conjure new fiction, he puts out a Craigslist notice proffering his services as an unlicensed private detective. This is a disastrous idea that automatically invites ridicule, yet one that also summons quirk and unpredictability. In his attempts to style himself into a character from a Raymond Chandler novel, the fictional Jonathan ends up surrounded by characters who could easily populate books by modern masters like Michael Chabon and Nicholson Baker. Schwartzman — as drily as a Chandler gumshoe, if not as competent — holds things in place with a curious, unflinching sincerity, the kind that is often born out of deep self-doubt.

Bored To Death ran on HBO from 2009 to 2011, and all three seasons of this tragically short-lived series are streaming on Hotstar. At a time when we routinely discuss the novelistic worth of the modern television narrative, few shows feel as obviously literary. Watching — or even, indeed, rewatching — the show feels as pleasurable as hoicking oneself into a hammock and flipping through a clever book that, refreshingly enough, doesn’t feel the need to pose as anything but a clever book. Its alumni have branched off effectively in television — Galifianakis has the poignant but uneven Baskets, Schwartzman co-created the amusing Mozart In The Jungle, Danson was great on Fargo and is sensational on The Good Place, while Ames himself is chugging along with the quirky Blunt Talk — but I daresay this lovely little show, so cinematic and so unafraid, would have been cherished more had it debuted now, in the Netflix era.

Bored To Death is a hilarious show about friendship and loyalty, as well as a completely non-judgemental celebration of odd behaviour. It is also a fantastic show about men being men. Which largely translates to them coming to grips with the fact that they are not as young as they used to be. This is why all of the three primary characters, during the course of the ambitious and unexpected narrative, keep realigning their expectations of themselves. Galifianakis’s Ray, for example, prepares for a boxing encounter wanting to box “like Will Smith in Ali” — because trying to box like Ali himself is laughably out of reach.

Plimpton’s zoetic adventures as a sportswriter took him — a passionate but entirely amateurish performer — into the shoes of the pros, wearing which he spun books we laughed at more than we learnt from. Learning from, in fact, is often overrated. And as George Christopher says at the end of the immaculate first season, “That’s okay, because it’s good to be in the dark. It keeps things interesting.”

It’s enough to make the other George smile.

Stream of stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.

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