Watched the last episode of Bored to Death tonight, thanks again to Mike. I wish there were more than eight episodes. Like the show a lot, but it turns out that the reason I wanted to watch it to begin with is the reason to watch it.
Jason Schwartzman’s Jonathan is the main character. But Bored to Death is a show with three leading men. Schwartzman gives it its heart and soul. Zach Galifianakis gives it its edge, simply by defining where it is by constantly being on the verge of going over it. Zach is grumpily dissatisfied with everything good in his life and at any moment seems about ready to check out on whatever---his relationship with his girlfriend, his friendship with Jonathan, his art, life. Not that he’s suicidal, but if he could will himself out of existence…
Check that. If he could will himself into another existence, he’d do it. Often he seems to be trying to do it right in the middle of a conversation. His forehead furrows, his eyes focus inwards, angrily, his mouth contracts, and he looks as though he’s attempting to force himself ass first through a small porthole that’s opened up between this world and someplace, anyplace, else.
Danson, as the constantly stoned and seemingly monstrously self-absorbed magazine editor George, gives the show weight and heft, which is hard to see in the first several episodes because George appears to be a flibbertigibbet.
But what George is is what the title of the show tells us all three men are, bored to death.
Jonathan and Ray are young, they haven’t found their way in life yet, and they feel lost. They don’t like the looks of what’s in front of them, and they can’t go back. They don’t know which of any other choice of directions would be the right choice. So they’ve decided, independently, that the wisest thing to do is to stop moving, at least for the time being. They don’t do nothing while standing still. They just do the same things over and over. Emotionally and intellectually, they’re jogging in place, which bores them, well, to death.
Jonathan, however, has found a way to feel as though he’s moving by stepping out of his real life into a fantasy life as a private detective. Even though he has actual cases and solves them, mostly, and is routinely in real danger, his second career doesn’t provide him with a new life because to live it he has to pretend to be someone he’s not and when he’s not on a case he falls back into his old life, where he’s still standing still. The more success and fun he has as a PI the worse he feels when he has to stop and go back to being a journalist and writer, his career heading, as far as he can see or cares, nowhere.
But George found his way in life a long time ago and he liked where it took him. He likes what he sees ahead of him, except for that part up ahead where he’s no longer in the picture. George sees Death up ahead. But he’s not afraid of that, at least no more than is normal. What’s bothering him is that he can feel his strength and energy draining from him and he’s afraid he won’t be able to meet his end head on and at full speed. He doesn’t want to coast to a stop, short of his final destination too, and wind up lying there doing nothing while waiting for Death to come to him and sweep him up and away.
So like Jonathan and Ray he’s decided to stop moving, but like Jonathan he needs pretend to be in motion, just that unlike Jonathan he can’t settle on any one pretense.
In the sixth episode, when George insists on coming along on one of Jonathan’s cases, it looks as though Jonathan is dragging George out of his doldrums.
It turns out that it’s George who’s been keeping Jonathan going all along by keeping him challenged.
Jonathat’s book editor---played in explosive short bursts of affectionate bullying by Bebe Neuwirth believes in Jonathan’s talent and admires him as one of her best writers, but her idea of what makes a writer a writer is that he writes. She isn’t really interested in what Jonathan writes about. She’s confident that whatever he writes will be interesting because Jonathan wrote it.
In her mind, it’s the writer who makes the writing. But to George, it’s the writing that makes the writer, therefore it’s vitally important that the writing be stimulating, challenging, and worth the writer’s time and attention.
Since he’s the editor of a magazine that publishes Jonathan’s non-fiction, George doesn’t think of writing as something separate from living. A journalist, which is the kind of writer he can’t help classifying Jonathan as, since that’s the kind of writer he knows him best as, can’t write without getting out and about and experiencing new things and meeting new people. A writer, as far as George knows or cares, is very much like a private detective. George often seems to be giving Jonathan assignments that are no more than busy work, but what he is actually giving Jonathan opportunities to get out and about and have experiences and meet people---he is sending him out to investigate life.
I said that George was seemingly self-absorbed to the point of monstrosity. What George actually is is very good at keeping his mind on several things at once. It happens that we meet him and first get to know him at a time when what he has foremost on his mind is his own boredom. At the moment he is the chief focus of his own attention and he has himself worried. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t noticing what is going on around him and thinking about it and worrying about it.
His magazine is in trouble and he’s working on figuring out why and fixing it. And his favorite up and coming young writer is lost and adrift and, possibly, off his rocker, and George is aware of it and concerned for Jonathan and he’s continually coming up with ideas for ways to shake Jonathan up and get him moving---writing---although quite often those ideas serve the dual-purpose of shaking George himself up and getting him moving too.
And Ted Danson, who I suspect of being one of the smartest actors working in television, knows how to show us George thinking on several tracks at once. He keeps George’s self-absorption in front, on his face, in his bursts of goofiness and outbursts of childish temper, but whenever he’s apparently looking outward, his eyes are fixed, unfocused, glassy, and his smile is a tight, a little too broad, and in fact more of a grimace. Then, instantly the smile will change, sadden, flicker, flash again, flicker again, and shrink some more. And his eyes will turn inward, and we can see him looking at his own thoughts, but in a way a hunter who is simultaneously contemplating the approach of a bear from one side and a an angry bull moose from the other and trying to decide what are the odds that both will notice each other before either notices him and which one he should shoot first if they notice him at the same time.
Jonathan is dealing with his boredom by playing. Ray deals with his by sulking. George, however, is still working while apparently doing both, playing and sulking, and Danson lets us know that through his hands, which are never at rest.
Acting, Spencer Tracy said, is done with the eyes. He was simplifying for beginner’s. The best actors act with their whole bodies but they do it carefully and selectively. Danson is the most graceful comic actor since Cary Grant. There isn’t a part of himself he can’t make dance and dance in character. His favorite partners are his hands. Much of any part he plays is conveyed by a gesture.
He did this with Sam Malone, his hands were always at work, literally, often, when he was slicing up lemons or polishing glasses or pouring a drink, the small but necessary jobs of running a bar, which he performed with reflexive precision and confident ease, and more figuratively. His hands would be at work orchestrating, conducting, directing, smoothing things over, plugging leaks in the air, as he went about his real job in life, which was taking care of his friends at Cheers.
As George, Danson keeps his hands at work thinking. Whatever is occupying the thoughts at the front of his mind, the movement of his hands and fingers show us that in some other corner of his mind editing is being done. His hands and fingers are moving across empty desktops or on tabletops or bartops or in the air the way they’d move if he was leaning over a page layout or rewriting an article or sorting through photographs.
All of this is going on in the background of Danson’s performance, almost as if there are two of him on screen, and it’s why in the last two episodes, after the first shock at the change, it quickly seems right that the flibbertigibbet vanishes in an instant and the hard-headed, decisive, street smart editor and newsman and adult takes over. He’s been there all along, pushing Jonathan, guiding him, teaching him, challenging him.
Which makes it perfect that the last scene of the last episode has the two of them alone in a boxing ring, playfully sparring. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. How they wind up in that ring is the secret of the plot.
Now watch Danson’s hands at work.