End of Season Review: Boss, Season 1

29 Aug

Boss, the Kelsey Grammer Starz show about a corrupt long-time Chicago mayor with an incurable brain disease (not a spoiler, you learn this in the first five minutes of the show – this article is low on plot specifics and thus spoiler free for all but the most sensitive of readers) not willing to give up his perch of power without a fight, is a surprisingly interesting and enjoyable way to spend eight episodes as long as  you’re willing to temporarily put aside some of your beliefs about, I don’t know, reality and the like (that sounds like a negative; but it’s not intended that way; Boss would hardly be the first quality show demanding this).  Boss, sometimes cleverly and sometimes not so cleverly takes little bits and pieces from a number of the best TV dramas of the past decade or so, and repurposes them for its own uses.

Kelsey Grammer plays longtime Chicago mayor Tom Kane, who has kept himself in power through a combination of canny manipulation, well-timed brutality, and giving all the right people just enough to be satisfied.  In addition, his threats carry more weight because he’s been there so long, and he seems unbeatable, and well, if you can’t beat him, you might as well join him.  As we join him, a year away from his own reelection efforts, at the same time when he discovers his neurological condition, or perhaps because of it, his opponents smell weakness, and see a real opportunity to end the Tom Kane era.  They’re willing to pull out every stop to do so.  A test of Kane’s strength is represented by the upcoming Democratic primary election, where he chooses to throw his support behind young renegade Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Zajac against long-time governor McCall Cullen.  Meanwhile Kane is alternately helped and hindered by his two primary advisers, Ezra and Kitty, as well as by his wife Meredith, who married Tom as a measure of political convenience; she was the previous mayor’s daughter.

Boss takes from 24 the sense that there are moles all around constantly reporting on and sabotaging your every ploy, and occasionally overcomplicated, though exciting if you don’t think too much, and confusing plotlines.  From Game of Thrones Boss takes the idea that there are a few real players manipulating others for their own ends, while some, who think they are players, are merely pawns.  Everyone’s got their weakness, it’s just a matter of playing into it.  There are also got plenty of completely unnecessary boobs.  From The Sopranos, Boss gets Kane’s pure physical brutality, reminiscent of Tony, and his struggle to control an organization and hierarchy below him that is not always satisfied with his leadership, for different reasons.  Echoing Breaking Bad, Tom Kane has Walter White’s sense of survival at all costs, with his back up against the wall, and his willingness to use everybody around him, family and friends, however he needs to, in service of his own goals.  Boss has adopted Deadwood’s sense of language, in monologues in particular, as well as more careful manipulations (credit to Vulture for turning me on to the Deadwood comparison with a headline for article I didn’t want to read because I hadn’t seen the show yet).  Oh, and from Damages, Boss features a random hitman/shady dude who convinces a lot of people under threat of physical pain to do things, even though we have no idea who the guy is aside from these scenes or who he exactly works for.

I seriously hope real world Chicago politics, as potentially corrupt as they may be, don’t actually mirror Boss politics, because as far as Boss goes, the phrase skeletons in the closet needs to be altered to something like skeletons in the parking garage (a big garage, like four, five stories).  Also, although I’m fairly sure the skeletons in the traditional phrase are metaphorical, in Boss, at least some amount of time, they’re real.  Everybody’s cheating on everybody, nobody is honest or up front, and everybody has a plan to get what’s best for them, some of the plans better than others.

The events of Boss are utterly outlandish and frightening (actually less frightening for being so utterly outlandish) and stir up a lot of the much asked, but still always valid question of how far is too far for the end to ever justify the means.  Even more than that is the question of the just as old, power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Characters are constantly choosing actions which put them in power while stomping over others, believing some combination of the idea that their being in power will help others and the idea that they simply need to be in power.

It’s not a perfect show by any means.  The pacing in episodes is not always the best, there’s sometimes a little too much Rubicon-like shady old white men in rooms planning things, and it hits some of the questions it asks a little too on the nose.

Still, flaws aside, I’m absolutely glad I watched the show.  After watching The Good Wife recently. I found it, though not a bad show, a show that was thoroughly uninterested, especially compared to the top shows I’m used to watching, and the distinction really struck me more than I expected.  Interesting’s such a mundane word, but shows that don’t follow the set obvious path over the course of a sesson, either by subtle tweaking, by treading on new ground entirely, or just by applying a new focus or a new lens are unfortunately uncommon. Potentially interesting shows often do fail, either very quickly, when they run out of ideas after the premise, like Terra Nova, or like Lost, remain, well, interesting, but become terrible for other reasons.  Being interesting is certainly not sufficient for a quality show.  However, I think it’s not a bad first hurdle to pass.  While Boss takes pieces from all these other places, it does make the synthesis all its own.  It’s not quite canonical but it’s not a show I feel like I’ve seen a hundred times before, and I enjoyed it.

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