Friday, January 30, 2015

Bored to Death: Understanding Season Three

Bored to Death ran for three seasons on HBO between 2009 and 2011, with a follow-up film currently in development. The show stars Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis, along with dozens of cameos and guests. Schwartzman plays the bumbling writer-turned-private detective, Jonathan Ames, who posts his services as P.I. on Craigslist. Seasons one and two show Ames funbling his way through his cases, solving them almost by accident in order to make ends meet while attempting to finish his second novel. Ames's preconceived notions of a what "detective" is are rooted in film noir and novels rather than reality, and he strives to uphold the noir-esque image of a detective, but this facade is frequently-- and humorously-- broken.

The last season, however, disrupts the narrative flow established by the first two seasons; Ames is no longer the bumbling detective. Suddenly, Ames is not only competent, he is highly successful. The people around him are finally taking him seriously, his second book is not only finished, published, and released, but selling. The line for autographs stretches around the bookstore. He moves to a more classic "noir" apartment that resembled detective's offices (frosted glass on the door, a large clock on the building's exterior, glowing red lights seen through his windows).

If considered as simply a continuation of seasons one and two, season three feels disjointed and out-of-place. If, however, season three is read as a separate narrative, then the changes begin to make more sense. Several times, Ames has been told to "write what he knows," and what he knows at the time has to do with being a private detective in the noir sense. He does this once in short story format when he submits to the writing contest at The New Yorker, only to be beaten by his nemesis, Lewis Green (played by John Hodgman). In the final episode of season two, Jonathan and George are walking away from the hospital, discussing how their lives need to change. They decide to get stoned and have a "vision." Whether read as Jonathan's drug-induced "vision" or his finally finished novel, season three's narrative is clearly a tangential narrative from that established in earlier seasons. Let's take a look at the evidence supporting this understanding of the narrative.

Applying Our Narrative Lens

Narratologically speaking, this season differs in a major way: there is one, consistent narrative spanning all of the episodes across the season. Seasons one and two present a different case for Jonathan to solve in each episode, but season three's mystery crosses the entire season. This presents the narrative of Jonathan's search for his birth father, discovering his half-sister, Rose (played by Isla Fisher), and their romantic relationship as being one, longer narrative, such as that contained in a full-length novel.

In the conclusion of season two, Jonathan was dating-- about to be living with-- his student, Nina (played by Zoe Kazan). Nina is nowhere to be found in season three. Toward the end of season two, we also met George's newly-hired driver, Vikram, a poet from one of Jonathan's cases. Neither Vikram-- nor any other driver-- appears in season three. Such discrepancies can be common in between seasons, but the dialogue doesn't even work in slight mentions of these now-missing characters.

One orbital character that experiences a deep shift is Jonathan's father, Ira (played by Richard Masur). In season two, episode three, we are introduced to Ira when Jonathan, George, and Ray pile onto Jonathan's parents' lawn, asking for them to pay a ransom for their lives. Ira seems more inconvenienced about this predicament than truly concerned. When Jonathan apologizes to his kidnappers, Ira says gruffly, "Stop apologizing all the time." Jonathan hangs his head. It is clear from this brief interaction that Jonathan and Ira do not have a close father-son relationship. In season three, however, Ira waits happily in line to get Jonathan to sign a copy of his new book. That night, Ira nervously tells Jonathan that Ira is not his biological father. Ira's clear anxiety and concern over Jonathan's reaction do not easily reconcile with the brief scene between them from season two. If season three is an imagined version of Jonathan's reality, it makes sense that he would rewrite this relationship to reflect one of mutual admiration and respect.

Jonathan's own character shifts in this season, as well. For two seasons, he has been a bumbling detective whose true, self-conscious, bookish, aspiring-writer nature always shines through his attempt to project the air of the traditional noir hero. Whenever he switches roles from Jonathan-the-writer to Jonathan-the-detective, he adopts a new overall style. His hair is combed and slightly oiled in a retro-1940s style. His posture shifts, and his trench coats billow around him. His confidence raises, at least until real danger faces him and the play is no longer fun. In season three, this detective persona is the only persona shown from Jonathan. His geekier version of himself takes a backseat, and though he may still have the comedic moments that have made the show fun, they are not typically at his own expense in this season. Rather, George and Ray take most of the brunt in this aspect. Throughout the whole season, Jonathan's hair and dress remain in his detective persona.

In the final scene of season three, Jonathan and Ray walk together into the sunset, musing about their lives. These final few seconds are a bit too picturesque, even with the incestuous relationship still unresolved. Recently, Jonathan Ames (the show's writer) and HBO have confirmed that a film finale of Bored to Death is in the works. Hopefully, this installment clarifies the narratives and brings proper closure to the series.


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