Boss returns to its second season with more of the same: Bleak despair, cruel and vicious political maneuvering, an antihero still slowly going mad, and the constellation of advisers and sycophants that still, inexplicably, surround him, even though he has proven himself toxic beyond measure. The very underwatched Starz! show is a big, sloppy political thriller that has so much corruption, crumbling bureaucracy, and quiet murder that it feels like it should be set in a 1930s noir film, or perhaps more accurately, a Frank Miller comic book. It’s both Gothamesque and Borgias-eqsue — ambitious and slapdash and in a lot of ways very elegant but then in some crucial, building-block ways, very deficient. For example, the camera-work is overdone — way too much lingering on people’s eyes for some reason, and I’m sure there’s like some broader theme about the gaze to analyze there, but it just slows down the pace of the show.
Boss is almost hilariously derivative of other shows that have been enormously successful — there are elements of The Wire, The West Wing, Breaking Bad, and, I mean, yeah, The Borgias in this show. It doesn’t have a lot to distinguish itself right now. But it could, and I found "Louder Than Words" pushing to a new direction that would make the show far more engaging and watchable.
One way in which the show has begun to distinguish itself is its evolving attitude towards the boss himself, Chicago mayor Tom Kane. At first I thought that the show was failing to humanize its titular character, but I’m beginning to believe that this is intentional. At this point, the male antihero drama is a staple of good dramatic television — Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos have perfected the story of the corrupt man at the center of a system he controls. And a crucial element of that story is that the antihero does bad things but is someone you can understand, if you try. Boss wasn’t making Kane accessible, though. Kelsey Grammer does a great job bringing Kane to the screen as a complex character, but there’s still so little to hold onto with him. Especially as the last season closed, we saw Kane talk about the ambiguity of necessary evils like a human being who seems to understand morals — and then brutally, and remorselessly, sell out his wife, turn in his daughter to the police, manipulate and destroy one of his closest advisers, and murder his friend and aide of 30 years. I mean, he’s straight-up evil, almost unwatchably so. Why would you watch, for fun, on TV, someone who is deranged by power destroy people around him with terrifying and ruthless efficiency?
But this season’s opener was easier to bear, and here’s why: We could have a hero. Or to be exact, a heroine.
Last season, the characters around Kane could not declaw him — not even his wife, who is probably the second-most terrifying character in the show, next to Kane. There were moments where we rooted for one character or another, but all of these characters weakened. They either lost nerve or were relieved of it by Kane’s ruthless tactics.
Enter Mona Fredricks, played by newcomer to the series Sanaa Lathan. Fredricks is Alderman Ross’ chief of staff — the alderman destroyed casually by Kane as part of his takedown of Zajac last season. Ross is a wreck after discovering his wife’s infidelity, and not really in a sympathetic way, because he creepily hits on Fredricks by kind of angling his crotch towards her face while he’s wearing sweatpants and drinking a beer in the middle of the day, surrounded by dirty laundry and empty food containers. But Fredricks can handle him; and more, she can handle the city council, too. The focus of this episode was the redevelopment of a housing project that would require the relocation of its inhabitants. Kane is pushing it through the council and Fredricks is against it. This is probably going to be one of the major policy battles of this season, so we just saw the first skirmish in this episode’s climax — and while Kane won, Fredricks came very close to winning the vote. It was so refreshing to see someone stand up to him that I found myself newly reinvested in the show, which is a harbinger of good things.
Even if Fredricks doesn’t turn into our hero, the rest of the characters could still rise up against the tyrant. Maybe Kane knocked down everyone around him — but if all of these characters are down, they are certainly not out, and that seems to be where this first episode of season two is taking us. In the aftermath of Kane’s total triumph over everyone who was trying to overthrow his power, everyone else is regrouping. Kane, meanwhile, has the utter audacity to complain, repeatedly, that no one around him truly “knows” or “understands” him. Obviously this is because he’s killed or ruined them all, but that doesn’t stop him from making a big thing out of it. Mrs. Kane is, for now, playing along with him quite well. Considering the last time we saw her, she was sobbing against his door, eyeliner streaming down her face, she seemed remarkably composed when talking to him. Meanwhile, Kitty and Zajac are being maneuvered to find each other, undoubtedly. She’s at her lowest point and he’s not much better. Together they could be a really good team, and Kitty might regain a lot of her self-worth. (Of course, she will also have to do something about being pregnant with his child.) And Zajac’s political ambitions are currently being run by his wife, Maggie, who seemed innocuous and turned out to be a political animal. Ben and Maggie Zajac look a lot like a younger Tom and Meredith Kane, obviously, which will be an interesting angle to play.
Looking over the supporting cast, it’s unclear to me whether or not anyone is supposed to relate to any of the characters in this show. The stakes are so high, and the ambitions and punishments so dramatic, that it seems like a fantasy very loosely connected to human motivations. That's a flaw, and the show needs to work on that, to bring the characters' down to the audience's level, so we can understand their problems.
Boss also has a serious production values problem. It’s fallen into the trap of assuming that looking like a great show equals being a good show. The production leans heavily on a few different visual devices to create “meaning” or “significance” where there isn’t, really, much to read into the situation — and then strips characters’ dialogue or actions of meaning that could much more easily be understood by the viewer.
If the show can stabilize it's relationship to Kane and clear up some of its more frustrating affectations of "good television," it could really be a great show. Right now someone in charge seems to think that moral ambiguity is a substitute for narrative and character development, and that won't fly for much longer. Ultimately this show really does feel like a film-noir comic-book 1930s deal — in that while watching it, I am desperately hoping a hero will swoop in and kill the bad guy. Shots were fired in the last scene. Maybe Batman is coming to save the day.
- Jonathan Groff also enters the cast as Ian Todd, a temp working as on of Kane’s aides; and the rapper T.I. joins the cast as a smooth-talking criminal-turned-politician, i.e. himself. Maybe the two will team up and do a musical number. A girl can dream, right?
- Kitty is probably my favorite character, and it was validating to see her really question her role in the world last season. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does with this season.
- I didn’t like his character much, but I miss Martin Donovan as Ezra Stone, because Donovan is a solid actor who said so much with a glance. Kane’s hallucinations of him are awesome, because it is now enjoyable to watch Kane suffer regrets.
- The newspaper scenes are getting a little frustrating, because as much as I like Sam Miller, all of the conversations about “the future of journalism” are simplistic and trite. Maybe I am bitter, though, about the future of journalism myself.