Mayor Thomas Kane (Kelsey Grammer) has been diagnosed with a degenerative brain disorder. Keeping this to himself, he continues to rule Chicago with the same brand of effective ruthlessness he has for the past several years. But when the cracks in his armor begin to show, both his closest allies and his bitterest enemies begin to look for a way to bring him down.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: this freshman season of the Starz series Boss suffers from many of the same problems as so many other freshman seasons. This is a good show, but it’s obvious that creator Farhad Safinia (up until now best known for co-writing Apocalypto) and his fellow writers are still trying to get a feel for the story they want to tell. Thankfully, the season gets better as it goes along, becoming more focused and forceful. If this trend continues, and if Safinia and his team spent the break between seasons working out the kinks and refining and streamlining the storytelling, Boss could develop into a damned fine show.
At its worst, Boss is something of a soap opera. At its best, it feels like a strong adaptation of a Scott Turow novel. The show’s portrayal of the underbelly of big-city life and politics often feels real; how real it actually is doesn’t matter, but the mix of pettiness, backbiting, infighting, corruption, and manipulation quite often seems reasonable (especially for Chicago). At times, though, it can get to be a bit much. Scope is the main problem in the early goings. There’s simply too much going on, too many characters who need something to do. And when it all starts to pile up, it can get a wee bit ridiculous. Giving everyone a subplot is something far too many shows that feature large casts do, and something most of them need to stop doing.
Kane’s daughter (played by Hannah Ware) is the best example of this bloat. She’s a former junkie who’s now a minister and works at an inner-city medical clinic. That’s fine, but the show keeps going back to her, giving her a storyline in which she becomes infatuated with the drug dealer who supplies her clinic with the sedatives and whatnot it cannot afford to obtain through legal means. This guy doesn’t associate with the best element, and this leads to a lot of cliché nonsense (such as a basketball game in which someone inevitably pulls a gun). There is something of a payoff to all of this, but the payoff would have even more weight and force if it came as more of a surprise, or perhaps if the daughter’s introduction was the payoff. But thanks to all of that wasted time and melodrama, what should be a big moment is somewhat muted.
There are times the show needlessly does things simply because it’s a cable show and it can. Kane’s right-hand aide (Kathleen Robertson) and the state’s Treasurer (Jeff Hephner) are having an affair. He’s been married for a while and has a couple of kids, and she likes having sex in places where there’s a danger they’ll get caught. This leads to Zalman King-esque meetings in boardrooms and hotel stairwells. While cliché, the affair does make sense; the softcore couplings, on the other hand, are just silly.
The show is at its best when showcasing the dealings among the various levels of Chicago’s bureaucratic machine. A good bit of time is given over to a shutdown of the city’s sanitation department, and it’s both entertaining and fascinating to see how the various parties jockey for the upper hand in what amounts to a complex game of one-upmanship. When the plotline is first introduced, it seems like small-time nonsense, but a short time later there’s a sequence that turns everything around, one that makes it clear what would happen if a city of a few million people had nowhere to put its garbage. The wheeling and dealing involved in getting the situation resolved plays like something from a good suspense tale, and the contrast between what goes on behind the closed doors of the government and what’s said in front of the cameras is wise and knowing. Were the show as a whole that wise and knowing, it’d be one of the best series currently airing.
At the heart of this is Thomas Kane, who ranks alongside Deadwood’s Al Swearengen as one of the meanest bastards ever to grace the small screen. And he’s just as compelling to watch. He’s a despicable human being (in every facet of his life), but he’s so exactingly ruthless and so successful in what he does that he becomes fascinating. And Grammer is perfect. Given the role for which he is best known (a role that originated on what remains one of my favorite shows), you probably wouldn’t peg him for this sort of character, but watch Grammer (who wasn’t nominated for an Emmy for his work here, which just goes to show how stupid and useless those things are) for a couple minutes and you’ll think it was tailor-made (and it more or less was, as Grammer had a hand in the show’s conception).
The first scene of the season, in which Kane’s doctor gives him his diagnosis, had me a bit worried. I found it hard to hear what was going down and not immediately think of Breaking Bad. Thankfully, though, Boss handles its lead character’s dilemma in a way that makes it anything but a cash-in gimmick. It’s also a clever way of giving the show a built-in finality. There’s no way this show could go past three or four seasons (not successfully, anyway), and Kane’s affliction is sort of a bomb that’s slowly ticking down, running parallel to the bomb that is his political and personal travails. There are two ways out for Kane, and neither will be pretty. The hook here is waiting to see which one will destroy him first.
Boss hasn’t exactly been a ratings bonanza for Starz. Unless there’s a significant upswing in viewers, I doubt it will be back for a third season. That’s why I’m hoping people will give this release a look and then give the new episodes a look. This isn’t a great show, but it is good one that looks to be working toward making itself even better. If Season Two opens with and can sustain the level of quality with which Season One closes (the final episode--especially the final shot--is, in the best way possible, a hell of thing), it’ll make for some damned fine television.
The show is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the 1080p transfers have been encoded with AVC, and the eight episodes are spread across two 50GB discs. The show has a slightly dark, very naturalistic look, one that accurately reflects its primary settings (offices, boardrooms, etc.). Earth tones dominate the palette, and they have a relatively rich, sometimes warm look.
Like most television shows, Boss is shot on digital video, but the image here comes as close to looking like film as any show is likely to get; it’s smooth, clear, and detailed, with only some minor banding and aliasing preventing it from looking the absolute best it could. Blacks hold up very well, never crushing or weakening toward gray. This is a very strong presentation.
The only audio option is a series of DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 tracks. Those two extra channels don’t add much, but then again the standard surround channels don’t do a whole heck of a lot. There’s some mild ambience, and exteriors toss a few discrete effects to the rears, but much of the aural information in the dialogue-driven mix remains in the three front channels. All of that dialogue sounds very good, natural and weighty. The occasional bit of music (Robert Plant’s version of “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” serves as the show’s theme, which I took as a positive sign) also sounds good.
English, English SDH, and Spanish subtitles are available.
Commentaries are included for the first and last episodes of the season. Creator/writer/executive producer Farhad Safinia appears on both; he’s joined by director of photography Kasper Tuxen on the first, fellow executive producer Richard Levine on the last. The discussion on the first episode tends to center on the technical aspects of the production, while talk on the finale covers the themes and overall arc of this first season.
The Mayor and the Maker (17 minutes, HD) is a chat with Grammer and Safinia, who discuss the show’s origins.
The second season of Boss is due to begin shortly, and hopefully it will continue the progress initiated in the final episodes of this first batch. Even with its flaws, this is a good, entertaining, extremely well acted show, one with the possibility for better things.