TV shows that attempt to portray life in New York City generally take two routes: they’re either about the city or about living here.
Seinfeld falls into the former camp: a show about nothing that could only be set in New York. The fact of George working for a never-seen George Steinbrenner, that episode about the long wait at a Chinese restaurant – these feel like place settings for four nihilists who could only exist here, who are absurd to imagine anywhere else. (This is why, perhaps, the show’s trip to California was only two episodes long.) Girls, on the other hand, is the opposite: it’s a show that tried desperately to pin down who or what a particular generation is, using life in one city as a lense to make sense of Hannah and her friends’ self-aware struggles. (Which is why the trip to Bushwick in Season 1 was less about Bushwick than about the plotlines colliding there.)
Recently, I’ve been watching and loving HBO’s short-lived Bored to Death because it feels like a bit of both: New York City is both its motive and motivation. For context, the show ran for three seasons (2009 to 2011) and starred Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis. (And like Girls, Seinfeld, and most TV shows that exist, the cast is all white and predominantly cis.) It is essentially a stoner crime noir: Schwartzman plays Jonathan Ames, a struggling writer living, drinking and smoking in Brooklyn, who shares a name with the show’s creator and starts doubling as a private investigator on a whim. Ames solves crimes throughout various cityscapes à la Raymond Chandler, but if The Big Sleep met 2009 New York, a city stuck between its pre-financial crisis glitz and its gentrification in the years ahead. Danson (George) is his bachelor magazine editor, while Galifianakis (Ray) is his brooding best friend.
In one episode, Ames cracks a case by drinking a lot of vodka at a Russian restaurant in Brighton Beach. Another episode, guest-starring the great Patton Oswalt and Jim Norton, is titled “The Gowanus Canal has Gonorrhea!” (which it actually did, at the time). Over the course of the first season, George and Ray catch the detective fever too, becoming Ames’ bumbling sidekicks all the while reeling from heartbreak, a high, and a white wine buzz. The show started just before the Brooklyn brand became gag-worthy, so the shots of Grand Army Plaza, the Coney Island boardwalk, and the beautiful brownstone streets don’t feel forced, nor does the multitude of cameos.
In mostly harmless ways, Bored to Death makes fun of the media world, the quickly-gentrifying Brooklyn world, the annoying single white guy world, and other worlds that exist here pushed up against the others, all without taking itself too seriously – much like the city itself, on its best days. There’s an ongoing gag in the show where characters trip over baby strollers entering and leaving any token Park Slope cafe. It’s a stupid, effortless joke. But because it happens often – and really, without explanation – you laugh.