One key aspect Kelsey Grammer's Boss clearly understands is that the best chance a drama has to gain notice in this crowded television market is to operate in the extremes.
If, for example, a television series were to concern itself with a corrupt, nearly despotic mayor, such a series might choose to portray the various angles and power-hungry wrangling of politicians as a comedic farce, wherein it is clear that the utter pettiness of those in power ultimately dooms anything remotely resembling the common good. Said series could, of course, also choose to apply a more sinister and dark tone, one where murder goes hand-in-hand with political grandstanding.
Those who have tuned to Starz' occasionally bleak drama know exactly which version the network, Grammer and the show's creator, Farhad Safinia, have chosen. As the series rolls into season 2, it's clear from the onset that things haven't changed much in the Windy City. Boss remains on the fence between setting up intriguing political maneuverings and engaging Sopranos-like levels of criminality – though the program is still at its best when sticking to the former. Corruption is a fine topic to examine, especially when applied to the people who should feel most obligated to avoid it, yet are somehow seemingly most prone to engage in it. However, when the disobedience of public officials begins to resemble that of a sadistic villain (cutting off a man's ears to teach him a lesson?), or certain characters making an appearance in a revealing state of undress, Boss' extremes sometimes prove a disservice to what is essentially a compelling political drama.
While some of those aspects are still on display in the early part of season 2, they are few. This is not to say those elements have no place in a series such as this – they do. The problem is that Boss is still a little clumsy at it, and that can work to derail the drama. For the most part, however, Boss has returned more focused on Mayor Tom Kane (Grammer) and how a progressively worsening case of Lewy Body Dementia has stepped up the need to secure his legacy, as it appears Kane has truly begun the last years of his life.
In the wake of losing both his personal aide Kitty O'Neill (Kathleen Robertson) and, more permanently, his senior advisor Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan), Kane is operating largely without any support– since his wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen) is little more than a stranger these days, and his daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware), is currently sitting in a correctional facility, courtesy of her father after she hooked up with a low-level drug dealer named Darius Morrisson (Rotimi).
Stepping up is an inexperienced, but willing aide, Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff), who's on loan, but has machinations for staying on as the mayor's new right hand man. Also new to the cast is Sanaa Lathan (AVP, Contagion) as Mona Fredricks, who works for Alderman Ross (James Vincent Meredith), but is quickly growing disillusioned with Ross' complacency and inability to effect change in his district – especially the contentious area known as Lennox Gardens. Given her tenacity (which we see during a vote where, apparently trumped by Kane, Fredricks moves to blackmail another member of the city council to ensure Kane does not get his way) and her discontentment with Ross, it won't be long before Ms. Fredricks plummets deeper into the political machine that runs Chicago.
Lennox Gardens and the new terminals at O'Hare have become the sole focus of Kane, after having more or less bested his foes at the end of season 1 – which, coupled with his condition, has instilled in the mayor a more pressing need to leave behind something worthwhile and lasting. As his focus shifts toward some possible redemption, Kane begins to wonder how his actions, shaped by his affliction, will come to form the conclusion of his personal and political life.
Perhaps this is the most exciting element of Boss: The idea that this is the beginning of the end. No matter how Kane plays his cards, he's been dealt a losing hand. Now, there is nothing more sacred than the notion of what he will leave behind, how he will be remembered. For one, Kane seems no longer bothered with who will become Illinois' next governor (despite that developing into an intriguing subplot). After taking and manipulating Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) to his will, the mayor has all but abandoned him, even forbidding Zajac from speaking to the press. Moves that may cause the candidate to once again switch loyalties, or Kane may find he will be dealing with the far more obstinate Senator Catherine Walsh (Amy Morton). And with newspaper editor Sam Miller (Troy Garity) still trying to get his hands on evidence that will effectively take Kane down, the question becomes at what point does salvation cross paths with mere survival? Kane may be looking further down the road than ever before, but his corruption and the ease with which he manipulates others are no more likely to subside than the hallucinations or tremors.
Thankfully, those, too, have mostly been toned down in the early part of this season. Instead of a seemingly random assortment of memory lapses and nightmarish visions, Boss has taken to make the sight of dead comrades and desert-dwelling reptiles feel less flashy and obstructive, in favor of making them more poignant and indicative of Kane's burdens – the one damaging his mind and the one destroying his soul.
Boss can occasionally be its own worst enemy in terms of just how salacious the show is willing to become, but early on in season 2, it seems as if the writers have figured out a way to wring more dramatic impact from such aspects – as will be evident by the violent incident which caps off the season premiere. However, despite the varying extremes frequently taking center stage, there still exists behind them a gripping drama highlighted by superb performances and excellent cinematography.
By stressing aspects like the termination of a public housing project, and the long-fought battle for the expansion of O'Hare, Boss makes it clear that the real interest lies between the sensational, and more often than not, the series gets those aspects right.
Boss continues next Friday with 'Through and Through' @9pm on Starz.