A Hardboiled Look at Chicago Politics: ‘Boss: Season 2’

I have a real love-hate relationship with Boss—there are many things I love about the series, but I also frequently find it to be exasperating. The viewing public seems to agree more with the second half of my opinion—after two years of chronically low viewership, there will be no third season of Boss—but I predict that this show’s stature will only increase in the years to come, as more people catch up with it on DVD or instant view.

The key to Boss appreciation is to realize that it does not aspire to naturalism. That means, don’t bother comparing it to your view of how contemporary Chicago politics work, and certainly don’t compare the behavior of the show’s characters to people you know in real life. Either approach misses what is best about the show while highlighting what can be most frustrating about it.

Simply put, Boss aims to present a hardboiled, somewhat abstracted view of power relations as practiced by a varied cast of characters, each with their own motivations and vulnerabilities, while also imparting an almost Shakespearean grandeur to the proceedings.

Letting go of simple realism frees series creator Farhad Safinia (he co-wrote Apocalypto, which gives you some idea of his ability to portray ruthlessness on screen) to create characters that are larger than life. First and foremost among them is Chicago mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer), who fought his way to the top of the city’s power structure and intends to remain there (you learn much more about his backstory in this season).

Kane has a problem, however—he’s been diagnosed with a degenerative neural disease that is gradually impairing both his physical and mental abilities, and is also causing him to have some dandy hallucinations. It’s a great dramatic setup, as Kane must battle his own failing abilities while also concealing his growing weakness from the many predators around him who would be only too happy to bring him down.

Grammer has a talent for portraying characters who are divided against themselves—it was the hallmark of his performance as the title character on Frasier—and he puts it to good use in the second season of Boss, where his job is to convince you that Kane is seeking something like redemption, although he’s still not keen on giving up any of his power. Grammer has the thespian chops to deliver the series’ complex, occasionally bombastic speeches, but can also convey menace through his eyes alone. His acting style is custom-made for the many extreme close-ups favored by the series: Gus Van Sant directed the first episode, and his trademark style is largely imitated by the cast of directors who worked on this season.

The other star turn in Boss belongs to the city of Chicago. If the politics are not realistic, the locations are certainly genuine, and from the title sequence onwards (featuring doodles by Van Sant over a series of well-chosen location shots and a soulful rendition of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” by Robert Plant), the series couldn’t possibly be taking place anywhere but Chicago. Admirably, Boss avoids hawking tourist landmarks, Woody Allen style, in favor of using locations, like the winter-withered rooftop garden of City Hall featured in the opening episode of this season, that offer an insider’s view of the city.

So that’s the good—what about the bad? The main problem I have with Boss is that it’s really hard to keep track of what’s going on, and that sometimes makes it hard to care. The plot is extremely twisty, and many of the characters are types, so while it’s not hard to tell the aldermen from the advisors from the drug dealers, it’s much easier to get confused within those categories. That’s not a knock on the actors, who are uniformly excellent, so much as it is a comment on the complexity of the writing—and honestly, I’m not sure I want to work as hard just to keep up with Boss as the show’s writers seem to think I do.

The other sticking point is Boss’s general over-the-top-ness: it has a habit of veering from heightened reality into absurdity, and while I’m a pretty tolerant viewer as far as going where a show wants to lead me, Boss frequently tries my patience in this regard.

The best addition to the cast this season is Jonathan Groff as Kane’s new advisor; he and Sanaa Lathan take over the roles vacated by Martin Donovan and Kathleen Robertson. Connie Nielsen and Hannah Ware are still in the picture as Kane’s wife Meredith and daughter Hannah, as are Rotimi as Meredith’s love interest, Jeff Hephner as the up-and-coming politician Ben Zajac, and Troy Garrity as the ambitious journalist Sam Miller. It’s difficult to imagine anyone watching the second season of Boss without having seen the first (that would be a recipe for terminal confusion), but if you liked the first season, you’ll probably like the second even more.

The sound and image on the Blu-ray disks are excellent and deliver the quality necessary to allow you to bask the series’ operatic approach. Extras include an insightful 15-minute introduction to the series and commentary tracks for three episodes.

RATING 6 / 10