In September, more than three weeks before Boss premiered, Starz renewed the series for a second season. It was an unprecedented move and signaled the network’s faith in the series, which they hoped would be their equivalent of a Sopranos or Mad Men—in other words, the show that made Starz a player in scripted television. Now, with the first season wrapped up, I’m guessing some executives at Starz might be experiencing some acute buyer’s remorse. The ratings are almost comically tiny, but even worse for a show that’s so obviously positioning itself as a prestige drama, Boss just isn’t very good.
Now admittedly, I have been skeptical of Boss all along. I though the pilot was pretentious, silly, and heavy-handed, and while the series has improved since then, fundamental problems persist. I’ve given this quite a bit of thought, and for me it all comes down to one issue: the show lacks humanity. There’s not a single character on Boss that I buy as a living, breathing person, rather than a walking archetype or a mouthpiece for delivering a show-offy speech conjured up by the show’s writing staff. It’s not that Boss would be better if Kane were likable, but if you’re going to put bad people at the center of your show then they need to be flawed in an interesting way.
I don't find Kane compelling, and all of Kelsey Grammer’s scowling and scenery-chewing can’t change that. We know essentially nothing about him, beyond his maniacal need to maintain control of Chicago despite the rapid onset of a terrible degenerative disease. He's a type, not a character, and the writers have thus far failed to make me want to know more about him. One thing that's sorely missing from the portrayal of Kane is a glimpse of his quotidian life. Even mundane things, like seeing Kane shave or watch TV or whatever, might make him more identifiably human. Of course, it wouldn't hurt if he had genuine feelings for anyone in his life. We also don't get a sense of his political talents, other than his ruthlessness. What traits does this guy have that make him (or once made him) a leader people could believe in? As the the finale ends, Kane is racked by a terrible seizure. I suppose his illness is supposed to make him seem vulnerable, but I couldn't suppress the eye-rolls. It all felt like so much Emmy bait.
A few months back New Yorker Nancy Franklin, writing about the new fall season, explained the difference between television comedies and dramas this way: “We say that we ‘love’ certain sitcoms, but we become ‘obsessed’ with dramas.” That line has been ringing in my head ever since, because I think it’s absolutely true. A good drama will make you believe, maybe even irrationally, in the world it portrays. That’s not to say it needs to be realistic in the everyday sense of the word, only that there must be something relatable or recognizable in it—a core humanity. I just don’t believe in the world Boss has created, and so I can’t imagine being obsessed with it. I suppose there might be some people who are obsessed with Boss—and if you happen to be one of them, I’d love to hear why.
It doesn’t help that, stylistically, Boss is always at volume 11. In order to big like this show does, you have to modulate the tone somewhat, include a few quiet, simply executed moments between the big showy ones, but Boss doesn’t get that. Even the most basic scenes are staged in overly complicated, not particularly believable ways—like when Kane tells Meredith that she has to get Elliott to drop the class-action suit if she wants to get back in his good graces. This as the flashbulbs are popping at a 2-minute photo-op at the voting booth, with dozens of journalists within earshot. The show puts “drama” before convincing storytelling.
In their final showdown, Kane and Stone sit across from on another in a nearly pitch-black office, framed against the Chicago skyline, their profiles just barely visible in the moonlight. It’s a meticulously composed shot, and it looks beautiful. Credit where it’s due: the cinematography on Boss is often stunning, even if it feels a little too showy sometimes. Loyal foot soldier Ezra Stone confesses to Kane that he’s the one who leaked the information about the O'Hare dump. It’s a great twist, but the scene is almost ruined by Stone’s ridiculous dialogue. He explains to Kane the reasons for his rationale, in long, articulate sentences that sounds as if they were being read from a teleprompter:
"It was always in the end because it mattered that we ran the city because we were best equipped to provide that which was good for its people and if elements got in our way, elements that needed to be torn down, I could justify the most ruthless of measures in how we dealt with them because I knew we were preserving what was good for the city by preserving this."
It’s a speech that would get you an A in public speaking—he even pauses at regular intervals!—but no one in the world talks like this, especially when confessing a betrayal to their long-time boss. I understand that Boss is aiming to be a latter-day Greek tragedy, but the execution, not the intention, is what matters. The overwrought dialogue sucks the life from the show, undermining its already tenuous plausibility. Things only get sillier when Kane asks Stone to pick his own punishment, and Stone launches into another lengthy monologue that plays over the next few scenes. Ross shows up at Zajac’s victory rally and punches him in the face, and Mike from Breaking Bad shows up to kill Stone—more or less at his own orders. Oh, what bitter irony! This occurs a few hours after “Mike” beats Kane’s nurse within an inch of her life. Naturally, we’re supposed to believe that because Kane is so powerful, both of these incidents will be swept under the rug and the press won’t catch wind—but this is Chicago, not Syria.
Let’s talk about some other characters and their relative believability. Judging from the comments here, Emma, the world’s dewiest heroin addict/Episcopal priest, has always been the biggest problem for most of you. I also find her highly implausible, and Hannah Ware’s stilted performance doesn’t do much to help matters. But I also think that even if Emma’s constellation of personality traits doesn’t really cohere, at least she has a backstory. She might not be believable, but at least she’s fully rendered. The same can’t be said for anyone else on the show, really. This week, she inhales a bottle of computer duster (desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess) and is virtually catatonic during her would-be showdown with Kane. The scene was a waste of time—basically an elaborate way for the series to delay a real confrontation between father and daughter until next season.
Next up is Meredith, a character with the opposite problem from Emma. I think Connie Nielsen is terrific in this part, and does a better job than most actresses could do with the material at hand. But the real problem is we only understand Meredith as an archetype—the conniving woman who will stop at nothing to maintain her privileged position. At the outset of the series, Meredith was the one pulling the strings behind the scenes, the one with all the power in her marriage. But now, after the Zajac plan fell through, she comes groveling back to Kane. In order to get the class-action case dropped Meredith throws herself at the old rich guy whose son is spearheading the case (a juicy lawsuit that would, no doubt, be picked up by another law firm within seconds, but never mind all that). Again, I find myself asking why. What motivates this woman? Why is she so willing to do anything to stay in his good graces, even when she knows Kane is sick and his days at the top are numbered? She certainly seems capable of striking out on her own.
Then there's Kitty, who's more like a humanoid than an archetype. In the beginning, she was a sexbot, a pure figment of male fantasy. Now, at least, she appears to have some kind of emotional life. It's hard not to feel bad for our bespectacled friend, especially when her ob/gyn tells her that she should think about freezing her eggs immediately after consulting her about the possibility of terminating her pregnancy (is the doctor just an asshole, or did I miss the part where Kitty said she wanted kids?). I'll also admit that I squealed a little with glee when Kitty quietly removed her badge and left it at the office. If there's a character who will keep me watching this show next season, it will be Kitty. And no, I can't believe I'm saying that either. Sure, her storyline is basically just a soap opera, but there's something to be said for the basic human drama of an unwanted pregnancy.
Sam might be the closest thing the show has to a “real human being” (just like Ryan Gosling!) but he still feels schematic, a character the writers use to bluntly make a point about power. In case you missed it: even the incorruptible journalist is willing to compromise his integrity so he can move up the food chain. This week Sam’s back in probing-journalist mode, delivering a fiery sermon (there’s no other kind on this show) to his underlings about going after Kane. “We are going to hammer at him with everything we’ve got,” he commands them. (Now that Dr. Harris has magically re-emerged from hiding, it looks like he'll have plenty to hammer Kane with.) The speech was out of character for Sam, and in real life probably would have gotten him fired within about 10 minutes, assuming he worked for a respectable newspaper. But don't forget: Sam is ultimately there to prove the writers' point, to show us how the thirst for power corrupts even the most virtuous people. That's why he's now more interested in winning his war with Kane than in being an ethical journalist. Point made, Boss.
- It’s a tough call for silliest lines of the night, but Kane wins it in a tight race for the following, which sounds like it could have been written by a 10th grader: “Every person who has plotted against me will feel the force of my wrath. No one will be left unscathed. No one!”
- The thing that really drives me crazy about the speechifying on this show is not just that Kane does it, but that everyone does it. The characters don't have their own ways of talking, their own speech patterns; they all sound like writers. Take the assistant at Sam's paper, who's been portrayed as kind of an idiot until this week, when she pops her head into his office and then spouts off a brief monologue about how they should be covering the election (a primary, mind you): "Whether you like it or not history is happening right now!" she says.
- Moco’s ear headband is not fooling anyone.
- Just to nitpick some more: So Dr. Harris is living in a safe house somewhere, presumably arranged by Kane's thugs, yet she feels free to call Sam on the land line?
- Aren't those computer dusters just full of compressed air? Could you really get fucked up on them? If so, then I'm off to Staples. See you next season.