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Bored to Death Recap: Comic-Book Heroes

It has been noted in this space, repeatedly, that Bored to Death’s charm — an acquired taste as it may be — is tied to its lack of narrative complexity, as it embraces the easy tropes of its noir premise. Mea culpa: When charged with the task of recapping and deconstructing the show’s plot, it’s imperative, if self-serving, to remind that sometimes there just isn’t one. The drawbacks of this approach become more pronounced in a season finale, when there’s an expectation that things must happen, that resolutions must be reached and new questions raised. Bored to Death doesn’t quite hold up to those kinds of expectations; the series revels in pat endings as a matter of course, but when the pat endings become an episode’s reason for being, the strain shows.

Jonathan has just spent his first night with Nina and she’s already asking to move in; that he even has to ask his friends whether or not that’s pathological is a testament to the character’s inherent doomed sweetness. Ray is freaked out because a stalker has just sent him a homemade Super Ray voodoo doll with an Exacto-knife blade stuck in the back. He enlists Jonathan to find the culprit, and they hit up S&M aficionado and fee-welcher Officer Drake to help trace a threatening e-mail. Jonathan and Ray stake out the suspect’s hostel room, then Jonathan twists his ankle chasing him across a rooftop.

Jonathan’s bum ankle makes him late for his interview for the college creative-writing job, where Louis Green is already waiting. John Hodgman is never not funny, but this scene, which culminates with Jonathan and Green clumsily chasing one another around the dean’s desk like itinerant children, takes their running shtick from fairly plausible literary-world rivalry to petty slapstick, and Green himself from sniveling antagonist to sociopathic stock caricature. Is it amusing? Sure, why not. But it feels like a dumb capper for a smart subplot.

Relatively speaking, George’s plot feels earned and satisfying. Now that his marijuana use can no longer be classified as medicinal, he is forced to see a pious drug counselor (Jim Gaffigan), who recommends two months in rehab. But the clincher comes when George sees the mock-up of the next issue of Edition, featuring Obama in Mao drag, and realizes he is powerless to stop it. Finally beaten, George resigns, and Catherine is relieved because she’d like to see him outside of the office. Having been pushed to the fringes ever since the liberal institution’s (patently ridiculous, let’s just say it) right-wing takeover, there’s only one way to regain his pride and dignity and ability to get stoned at will without fear of repercussion or Arizona. The show’s approach to the state of media is as broad as its approach to everything else, but that conflict had reached its logical conclusion, and bringing that to a close is a clever move and a promising one for the character. Start an Internet magazine? Sounds crazy, but worth a shot. Hello, early 21st century; good-bye, old-world-Condé porn.

Ray dresses up as SuperRay for the Brooklyn Comic Con, and Jonathan spots a suspicious figure, conveniently wearing a distinctive cap and conspicuously wielding an Exacto knife. Jonathan attempts to give chase, but the assailant still stabs Ray in the back. And who ever could this mystery creep be? I’d have had a slightly harder time guessing if HBO hadn’t thrown the superfluous shot of Irwin (real Jonathan Ames) running down Leah’s street naked into the “previously on … ” prologue. I guess the climactic reveal of this character might have been confusing to viewers who hadn’t seen that episode, but is that clarification worth ruining the lone bit of suspense in this episode for everyone else? A rhetorical question, as it were.

Leah visits Ray in the hospital and decides that she’s in love with him after all. So … yay? It’s great that his character has gotten what he’s wanted all season, but it’s hard to know how happy to be because I can’t think of a single thing about her character that’s been evident this season. She has kids? A French bulldog named Little Ray? Something else? She’s always seemed more like a totem to Ray, the yardstick by which he measures his own worth, than an actual person, and it’s hard to tell whether this is by design or a product of underdeveloped writing. The real Jonathan Ames might argue that this is irrelevant, that the characters we’re meant to focus on are the three male leads. Which is fine, but is it not odd that one character who is so integral to everything that one of those leads does feels like an afterthought? Jonathan’s conquests come and go, and even if those characters often feel like sketches, at least pencil was put to paper. Jonathan and George’s fates are up in the air — maybe they’ll travel together, but before that, they’ll smoke pot and get something to eat in Brooklyn. They leave as they came.

All of this may feel a bit too much like a rant or a repudiation of the season, and that’s not the intention. Bored to Death isn’t Lost, we shouldn’t feel ripped off for the plot threads not being tied together neatly, or at all. And certainly, the fact that this finale was produced without knowing whether it’d be a season finale or a series finale is no small consideration. Even the fact that the characters end up in pretty much the same spots they began in isn’t necessarily an indictment — it’s not like people enjoyed Seinfeld because of the rich character arcs. But this sort of stasis seems more grating in this show’s case because it’s obvious that (the real) Jonathan Ames cares deeply about these characters and wants them to grow and become richer, financially and otherwise. Every obstacle turned out to be a red herring: George has cancer, except it turns out to be a wacky misunderstanding. Ray turns heartbreak into creative inspiration, only he gets the girl back, so, phew. Jonathan’s flagging writing career has rendered him a joke at best, but the person constantly reminding him of this is a jerk, so it doesn’t really count.

It’s fine — great, even — that the weekly cases are wrapped up in a neat bow. Law & Order has been doing that for 3,224 seasons and no one’s complained. But when the three protagonists of a series, each with complexities and foibles that have been drawn out lovingly over two seasons, meet with that same fate, is it wrong to feel a little cheated? Yes, yes, it’s a campy detective show, the neat resolution is the point. But when does that stop being a genre-driven stylistic decision and start being an excuse for lazy writing? When does simple become simplistic? I’m asking.

Photo: Paul Schiraldi/HBO