Out of all of the premium TV channels, Starz has the hardest time with original programming. Currently, the network only airs three hour-long dramas, each of which have only existed for two to three years. None of these programs hold a candle to anything on other networks like HBO or even Showtime; Spartacus is just sleazy gore, and the reception to the mobsters-in-Miami period drama Magic City was so-so.
But then there’s Boss. After a solid initial press response and a Golden Globe win for lead actor Kelsey Grammer, the show seemed poised to give the major networks a run for their money. Unfortunately, now that we’ve been given time to reflect on the show following its eight-episode run, no one is throwing around comparisons to The Sopranos or The Wire. And rightly so: strong performances and Machiavellian political twists aside, there’s a lot to Boss that just doesn’t work.
Starz clearly set everything in motion so this wouldn’t be the case, what with hiring three top-notch directors to helm several episodes (Gus Van Sant, Mario Van Peebles, cinéma vérité cinemaphotographer Jean de Segonzac) and procuring a well-rounded cast, to boot. Everyone involved in this project was clearly aware how overdone the political thriller has become, and all measures were taken to ensure that Boss would rise above the generic mass.
Very early into the proceedings, however, it’s evident this isn’t the case. Boss isn’t a bad show, but it’s unlikely it will ever be remembered as a great one. Most damningly, the program tries too hard to be A Very Important Television Event. At its core, the story of Tom Kane (Grammer), the mayor of Chicago, is a basic tale of a crooked politician. But every effort is made to make it look like it isn’t: the arty direction, the slow-mo closeups, the ponderous mood, and the occasional monologue (imagine Sorkin writing Shakespeare with lots of f-bombs) create a supposed air of importance. The problem, however, is that instead of feeling important, it feels like it’s trying to feel like it’s important.
Even worse is how far the writers go in following the unspoken rule of good television drama in the 21st century: it must be incredibly dark. The “Big 4” drama series in the past decade (The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad) are particularly bleak affairs, especially Breaking Bad. There’s an odd satisfaction that comes from watching the dark side of humanity play out: it can be instructive, corrective, or, in some cases, enriching. For all the good we as individuals strive to do, parts of our lives are painted in shades of greys and blacks that we can’t ignore.
But while those programs rarely offer a sunny outlook on things, they at least have characters one can sympathize with. Boss has no such character. The people that appear to be the ones we’re supposed to root for, such as Emma (Hannah Ware), the neglected daughter of Kane, are so underdeveloped it’s hard to know what you’re rooting for.
When Kane’s second-in-command Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) betrays him in the finalé, citing him as narcissistic and unforgiving, you can’t help but chuckle. Stone isn’t any less guilty of that accusation; the rest of the cast joins him in the guilt as well. What’s supposed to be the moral comeuppance that shines a light on the erring ways of these Chicago politicians instead comes off as the “well, duh” moment. Stone may be more admirable than the majority of Kane’s mayorial staff, but that’d be like cherry-picking outstanding members of George W. Bush’s defense staff. You could probably find one, but it’d be like finding a vaguely shiny lump of coal instead of the hoped for diamond.
This unrelenting bleakness crosses over the threshold of self-parody early on. If there were an Emmy for “Best Female Actor in the Field of Symbolizing Your Show’s Greatest Weakness”, it would have to go to Kathleen Robertson. She plays Kitty O’Neill (no, Kitty isn’t a nickname, it’s on an unironic placard outside her office), an assistant to Kane whose cold demeanor allows her to extract whatever she needs from any situation at any time. Her perfectly made-up, pixie face and shapely physique also become the source for many of the gratuitous, Cinemax-worthy sex-scenes, which still retain the artful shooting of the rest of the show in an attempt to make them feel really serious.
Kitty embodies both the clichés (she’s a sexpot who sleeps with a married politician, only to undergo a major emotional change after becoming pregnant with his baby) and the feigned darkness (she’s cold and calculating, willing to do whatever is necessary without any regard for basic human dignity) that become serious issues for Boss. Her relationship with the Tommy Carcetti stand-in Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) is so unnecessary and empty it demands the question: is she here so we can see lots of pretty, naked body parts, or is she here to ratchet up the tension?
As you can see, the faults of Boss are many. Yet as I followed this story arc to its conclusion, I felt intrigued. I wanted to see these convoluted alliances play against each other. Much like how The Wire looked to Dickens for inspiration, Boss aims at the political tragedies of Shakespeare, mining the archetypal backstabbing stories to keep things at an appropriate pace. It clearly gets nowhere within the vicinity of the Bard in terms of excellence, but the writers know their tropes well, and they play all the pieces just right so that you’ll be wondering what will happen next. Just like George Clooney’s 2011 political thriller The Ides of March, the message here isn’t anything we haven’t heard before, but it’s told in such an engaging way you can push past the flaws, both major and minor, to enjoy the thrill.
What becomes Boss’ salvation, aside from its strategic plotting, is its acting. Grammer officially doesn’t have to worry about being typecast as Frasier anymore: even when he’s scenery-chewing, he’s convincing. The depths of his depravity are never Walter White-chilling (even when he opens a box containing two human ears), but he takes some heinous turns, including one when he sells his own daughter out to protect his image. No other actor on the cast matches Grammer, but they all do well, even those who are provided with thinly written roles.
“Try touring your city sometime,” one character says to Kane. “See what the monster has built.” This is meant to be a reflective moment for Kane; earlier in the episode this quotation is taken from, he reflects on how once you start doing bad things under the guise of doing good, you can’t control what you’ll end up with. In a way, this is also sage advice for the showrunners of Boss: they should really take a look at all the glaring issues here. If they don’t, this will end up becoming another failed experiment for Starz.
Included on the disc are commentaries on several episodes and one featurette involving Grammer and creator Farhad Safinia.