This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Meredith Blake, who’ll review the show week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff talk about Boss.
Boss debuts tonight on Stars at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Meredith: There’s a popular but dangerous misconception running rampant through Hollywood these days: It’s the idea that a good television series must, almost by definition, have a dark view of humanity. Arguably, it all began with The Sopranos, it continued with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and it’s now became an unofficial requirement that all “prestige dramas” revolve around complicated anti-heroes and evince an unrelentingly pessimistic outlook on the world. Boss, the new political drama series premiering tonight on Starz, suggests that boundless cynicism does not always make for quality television.
Boss opens with a medium close-up on the face of Chicago mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer). Lit severely from above, Kane looks both jowel-y and gaunt at the same time. He listens stoically as a doctor, off-camera, breaks the news: Kane has a rare degenerative disorder that will kill him within 3 to 5 years, and will render him incompetent long before then. As the doctor recites the grim, detailed prognosis, she sounds like an ad for a prescription drug with particularly horrible side effects —“You’ll experience increasingly severe visual hallucinations, paranoia, delusions.” The meeting takes place not in a sterile doctor’s office, but in an abandoned slaughterhouse in some forgotten corner of Chicago—a ghost of the city’s industrial past. Kane thanks the doctor, then ruefully quotes Upton Sinclair. “Life, with all its cares and its terrors, is no such great thing after all.”
It’s an audacious thing to essentially kill off a protagonist the very moment you introduce him. (Yes, Breaking Bad did this too, but Vince Gilligan waited, like, 15 whole minutes before revealing Walt’s cancer). If there’s one thing Boss, which was created by Apocalypto co-writer Farhad Safinia, has going for it, it’s self-confidence. But this, too, is the show’s biggest problem: at least in its pilot episode, Boss is rather too pleased with itself.
Faced with a diagnosis similar to Kane's, most sane people would resign from office immediately, seek treatment, and spend time with family and loved ones. But, in case you missed the memo, politicians are not like you and me. Rather than retreating from public life, Kane desperately consolidates his power. After all, what's the point of living if he's not in charge?
With a hungry investigative reporter (played by Troy Garity of the late, not-so-great Playboy Club) hot on his trail, Kane goes to extraordinary lengths to keep his health problems a secret. He doesn’t tell his estranged, ice queen wife, Meredith (Connie Nielsen), who probably wouldn’t care much anyway. Wearing a half-assed disguise, Kane procures his much-needed medication from a stranger (perhaps a Canadian?) in a desolate park. And, just to be on the safe side, Kane also sends one of his goons to remind his doctor of her obligations under the Hippocratic Oath; let’s just say she gets the message. Kane’s one emotional liability appears to be his daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware), who runs a free clinic in the city, is the rector of an Episcopal Church and, oh yeah, may also be a drug addict. Setting aside the issue of plausibility, Emma’s storyline is the most compelling part of the pilot.
As he fights to keep his health a secret, Kane’s stranglehold on the Chicago machine is also under threat. He’s spent a great deal of financial and political capital on a construction project at O’Hare Airport, one that requires the relocation of an historic cemetery and hundreds of homes. The project is barely underway before it comes to a screeching halt: it turns out the cemetery is also built on top of an Indian burial ground. I’m not sure why America’s television writers are so fond of this tired plot twist, but I’d like to take this opportunity to call a moratorium on it for the foreseeable future. But I digress. Kane responds to this second round of bad news with far less stoicism. He berates the city councilman overseeing the project, who in turn dishes out some Reservoir Dogs-esque punishment to the Spanish-speaking laborer who called attention to the burial grounds.
I live with no illusions that our politicians are kind, idealistic people, but Kane is almost absurdly Machiavellian, closer to Charles Taylor than Richard Daley. Back-room dealing, bribery, and kickbacks? Yes, sure, these things happen all the time in the dirty world of municipal politics. But maiming and forced drugging, at the behest of the mayor of the third largest city in America? Really? Even I don’t believe that.
So, Boss is a little far-fetched. It's not the worst thing in the world, and it would be forgivable if the show had something insightful to say about the American political system. But at this point, it’s less reminiscent of The Good Wife or The Wire than The Killing. Like that show, Boss explores the dark side of local politics in a smug and superficial way. The characters in Boss are suspiciously prone to lengthy, virtuosic monologues that sound like entries in an Aaron Sorkin ghostwriting competition. Perhaps the most laughable is when Kane’s top aid Kitty O’Neil (Kathleen Robertson, looking exactly like Ashley Banfield circa 2002) lists the costs associated with the O’Hare project from memory. Speaking of which, when she ends up fucking the Golden Boy candidate in a stairwell, we are supposed to be shocked, but the twist is as obvious as the sexy librarian glasses on her face. It’s hardly a revelation that many politicians are shameless philanderers; the only thing that’s shocking about the scene is how hilariously gratuitous it is.
Todd: I don’t like everything it does, but I like what Boss is building, ultimately, so I’m in for at least a first season. Kelsey Grammer is fantastic, the stuff surrounding him is almost always compelling, and the nitty-gritty political stuff is (mostly) well-done. There are some pay cable type problems here, including a temptation to stretch the world until it nearly breaks—the subplot with Tom Kane’s daughter could probably be excised entirely without hurting anything—and the series gives one character a particularly out-of-character love of in-public sex just to get its requisite amount of nipples in there. But there’s something both compelling and intriguing about the show that kept me going right through the first four episodes in a couple of big gulps (interrupted only by sleep).
It’s also interesting how the show’s direction and acting make up for occasionally poor writing. Everybody in the show has a tendency to immediately start spouting monologues, many of which aren’t terribly well-motivated, but when they’re in the mouths of actors like these and shot by a director like Gus Van Sant (whose signature style informs all of the episodes I’ve seen), they seem like nice little scenes. It’s only later that you realize how bizarre all of this pontificating is.
Will Boss play as a week to week series? That’s always hard to know, but here’s hoping people keep coming back, even though tonight’s pilot isn’t the most exciting piece of television you’ll ever see (though there are plenty of exciting things in it).