As political thrillers go, Boss is an interesting case, mostly because it nearly abstains from entering into any sort of political discussion. Instead, over the course of its first season, the series - starring Kelsey Grammer as fictional Chicago Mayor, Tom Kane - took to the notion of corruptibility amongst public officials – perhaps as a condemnation of the antiquated political machine the series and its characters have attempted to portray.
Boss is intensely bleak; the program relishes its cynicism and piles on the misdeeds of its characters so much so that each and every one of them feels beyond salvation. However, in a gross miscalculation of how much cynicism can be tolerated, and ultimately believed, Boss oversteps its boundaries and sometimes finds itself wallowing in its own preposterousness.
That is unfortunate, because with a modicum of restraint, Boss might actually be a great show. If the moments of sheer lunacy were tempered with more of the well-staged political malfeasance peppered throughout this first season, Boss could be looking at some real accolades. Sadly, the political thriller concerns itself too frequently with subject matter that appears too unwieldy in the hands of a freshman series. And for a show on Starz, home of sex and violence king Spartacus, it’s surprising to find the unwieldy aspects weren’t political in nature. Instead, it was the rather inexperienced way the program handled the network staple of sex and violence that felt off-kilter.
Too often, Boss would break from what it did best (deftly-written and acted depictions of political officials maneuvering for more power) to stage some hackneyed bit of nudity or violence and constantly remind the audience that the mind of Tom Kane was no longer reliable. These beats felt largely unnecessary, and tacked on for the purpose of justifying its place on a pay-cable network.
Thankfully, while much of season 1 dealt with Kane’s degenerative neurological disorder –attempting to play with the viewers’ perception of what the mayor was or was not actually seeing – it was in the later episodes, where the mayor’s quest to retain his power seemed to negate his illness, that created some real intrigue.
After ostensibly handing the governorship of Illinois to up-and-coming politician Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner), Kane learns that the youngster has delusions of his own, and with the help of a cabal of various aldermen and ward bosses, Zajac would seek to unseat the seemingly entrenched mayor.
At the same time, Kane is embroiled in a toxic waste dumping scandal brought about by a leak in the mayor’s office that puts the notion of impeachment on the table. As it becomes more and more clear that a coup in the city’s government is taking place, Kane comes to the realization that, in order to preserve his power, he must be willing to sacrifice anyone.
Most surprisingly, after it is revealed that his assistant Kitty (Kathleen Robertson) and his wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen) have both conspired against him, Kane offers up his estranged daughter Emma (Hannah Ware), possibly the only person still on his side, in exchange for a little political breathing room.
Kane manages to take what little leverage he has against the gathering forces and not only quell the public animosity against him, but also wrest control of Zajac back from the rogue alderman and ward bosses. By the end, Chicago’s all-powerful mayor is back on top, but not before learning his closest advisor, Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan), was the one who originated the leak that nearly toppled him.
Stone justifies his deceit by revealing himself to be the only player in Chicago’s machine who wants to unseat Kane, not for his own political advancement, but for the “overall good.” Sadly, this means Donovan – whose quiet, determined performance often leveled out Grammer’s more boisterous one – likely won’t be around for season 2.
Though he regularly chews the scenery, it is the performance of Grammer that drives the series. The power that Kane wields is impressive, and serves as the most entertaining aspect of Boss. It also provides an interesting conundrum for whatever lifespan the series has, because losing the plot of Kane’s illness becomes very inviting. Unfortunately, the inevitability of his disorder also serves to make the show more captivating. To watch as a man, so used to being in control, has that control taken from him not by an individual or group, but by his own body’s betrayal, plays well into Boss’ overall theme of corruption.
And yet, it is when the show focuses most on the political aspect – specifically the crisis in Kane’s office – that its narrative becomes the strongest. While Kane’s deterioration is a clever hook, after a while it becomes hard to fathom an audience eagerly tuning in to witness the inescapable frailty of life.
It’s as though Boss lacks confidence enough in its basic premise to avoid stringing viewers along with the telltale signs of a TV-MA rating. Eschewing over-the-top violence and extra-marital affairs would go a long way in making, what is in essence a very smart show, actually look smart in the process. There is an audience that delights in the idea of political strategy, and will come to a program that is reliable at producing such notions. Just look at Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing and CBS’ The Good Wife, as examples of this.
In addition there is Troy Garity’s role as journalist Sam Miller, which remained largely hidden behind the wall of Grammer’s big performance. Miller’s dogged pursuit of corruption and scandal in Mayor Kane’s regime, which was made all the more enticing by the journalist’s willingness to undercut his editor and play the political game, is yet another example of what Boss does right, but shows too little of. Here’s hoping Garity - and the symbiotic relationship between journalism and politics - finds an expanded role in this series’ continuation.
Given that the groundwork is already there, it shouldn’t be too hard for Boss to shift its focus to what it actually does best. As season 2 looms on the horizon, it will be up to series creator Farhad Safinia and executive producer/star Kelsey Grammer to see that the story of Tom Kane’s political legacy is worth carrying over to season 3.
Boss will return to Starz in October 2012.
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