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Jonathan Ames' 'Bored To Death': The Case Of The Urban Oedipus

Jonathan Ames

First Posted: 10/10/11 12:48 PM ET Updated: 12/10/11 05:12 AM ET

Jonathan Ames enters the rustic Italian cafe with an unassuming hunch, sporting a scruffy beard and newsboy cap, happily anonymous on the streets of Brooklyn. It’s his usual joint, and he knows the waiter well.

As an essayist, he was an exhibitionist, chronicling his zany and perversely meaningful adventures through New York. But that was less attention-seeking than it was an attempt to delight, and as he promotes the third season of his HBO comedy, "Bored To Death," Ames struggles with our new digital narcissism. On one hand, he thinks it just may help him draw attention to the show; but on the other, he's afraid that little blue bird will destroy communication and writing as we know it.

"It's probably just a big waste of time. But everyone's doing it," he sighs. "Alec Baldwin twitters. Is everyone just walking around with their phone, making these pithy comments? It's kind of crazy ... It's obviously very ego oriented. 'Pay attention to me, pay attention to me.' Now, all writing, all the arts are a form of 'pay attention to me,' but there's also the flip side. Like, I want to give something. Let me entertain you, let me amuse you, let me try to please you with this thing I've made. And then pay attention to me."

At least his show is worth tweeting about.

The series' protagonist is a struggling novelist -- named Jonathan Ames -- played by Jason Schwartzman, who has trudged through life battling both himself and the existential questions that so often emerge from a childhood spent in upper-middle class suburbia. To spice up his life and earn extra income, he starts a private detective business, taking ads on Craigslist and solving mysteries.

This season, the overarching mystery will be his very existence. The first episode kicks off with Jonathan finding out that he is a test-tube baby, the son of a sperm donor and not of the man who raised him. It's a case that takes up the entire season, which makes sense, since it's been in the works from the very beginning.

"I wanted to give Jonathan a season-long case, and I kinda set it up in Season One when the therapist says to him, 'Oedipus was the first detective in literature.' And what did Oedipus have to do? He had to find his father," Ames says. "And then in finding his father, he found out that he'd killed his father and slept with his mother, so this was kind of confirming the legacy the therapist gave Jonathan in Season One, that you are a 21st-century Oedipus, that you're this modern detective."

Along the way, Jonathan often receives the help of his friends Ray, a childish and curmudgeonly comic artist played by Zach Galifianakis, and George, Ted Danson's young-at-heart former magazine editor and member of Manhattan's literary elite, who together create a zany, neurotic Three Amigos of gentrified New York. With their highbrow-lowbrow mix of humor, which jumps easily from carousels to Cavett to call girls, all face their own daddy issues this season.

Ray, having provided the seed for a lesbian couple's baby, grapples with being a once-a-week, visitation rights father (quite the challenge for a man who draws a comic book hero with a giant penis), while George struggles to reconnect with his adult daughter -- and deal with her impending engagement to a man who is nearly as old as he is.

Ames' foresight, once again, paid off.

"These things that were inventions of the first season literally bore fruit in a good way," Ames explains. "Like Ray's sperm getting stolen in Season One, I kinda knew that if I ever got future seasons, this child is going to appear. And it was too soon to have it appear in Season Two, though he does say in Season Two that he's going to be a father when he's with Kristen Wiig [who guest starred in multiple episodes]. Some of these subtle little things. And George talks about his daughter in Season One when he's smoking pot with Ray; he says he didn't feel very close to her."

What makes the characters' struggles with their new roles so believable is the varying levels of maturity each displays throughout. George, the oldest, can sometimes be the most wondrous and naive, while Jonathan is finally a successful novelist at the same time that he finds himself searching for prenatal answers.

"When you have that evolutionary chart where you see the ape, and you see man slowly becoming erect -- each of the characters within the span of an episode or a season can be an infant, can be a hero, can be wise, can be kind, can be stupid," Ames says. "They run the gamut, so it's a little bit like that chart, but emotionally and psychically."

Ames can relate: He has spent his whole adult life in New York City, led by his infinite curiosity into bizarre parties, late-night cab shifts and sexual dalliances that provide plenty of inspiration for the show.

"It's like I take beads from my life and put them on each of the characters' necklaces," he explains. It's a source of exasperation for Ames, the assumption that because the character is named Jonathan Ames, the show must be autobiographical. When he was writing essays, many of which appeared in the now defunct NY Press, people wouldn't believe that the things he chronicled actually happened; now, he can't get them to believe he's not writing a televisual memoir.

Still, the show makes full use of its New York setting, the city's DNA coming through in both the story's inspiration and location. Ames has fun with a number of easily targeted Gotham trends, starting with the organic, elitist food scene. George, who left his long-time career as a magazine editor at the end of Season Two, reinvents himself as a restaurateur, opening up an artisanal restaurant that bans cell phones in favor of rotary phones that can be delivered to diners' tables in case of emergency.

As George engages in a heated battle for the most locally sourced food with an old rival, played by Oliver Platt, it's easy to assume Ames is mocking the foodie establishment. Generally speaking, though, Ames only makes fun of himself, and says that he's "having fun with" more than "making fun of" restaurant elitists. After all, he points out, we were meeting at an artisanal restaurant of his choosing. Looking around, he asks for reassurance that the show doesn't come off as too harsh.

As much as I insist, quite earnestly, that I believe the latest is the show's best season yet, Ames still expresses his doubts. His problem with Twitter is more the search for instant love, not the idea of receiving affection. The need for affection is a major theme of his work, and in that sense, "Bored To Death" is quite autobiographical.

"I think the goal is like a snake eating its tail. The goal is to entertain and to give to others; that's how I try to go about it," he says, trying to describe why one is driven to create. "And then for me there is the joy of making something ... humans like to be busy, it's nice to make things. And then part of it is wanting to receive affection for existing. That's a good quote: wanting to receive affection for existing. We all crave that. I try to not crave it, but you do just kind of wither if you don't allow yourself to be loved. But you run a great risk of allowing yourself to be loved, because people get hurt."

As his show begins its most consequential and richest season yet, Ames has little to worry about. Whether he believes it or not.

"Bored To Death" premieres Monday night at 9 PM.

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