The following article contains spoilers.
“You’d never know it by looking at him… how dangerous a man can be”
When someone has played the same character for twenty years, it’s often hard to see them as anyone else. So it’s to the credit of both Kelsey Grammer as an actor and Boss as a TV show that within five minutes of the opening episode, you have pretty much forgotten about Frasier Crane. As fine as his performance was in Frasier, this show really allows Grammer to prove his chops as a serious actor, and he seizes the opportunity with both hands. His towering performance, chilling yet sympathetic, sits at the centre of this acerbic politic drama that is possibly the bleakest view of humanity and ambition ever brought to the small screen.
Grammer is Tom Kane, Mayor of Chicago, who has held onto his position through a combination of charisma, political savvy and corruption. No deed is too dastardly, no act too low for Kane and his advisers, chief amongst them Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) who is his organiser and chief bully boy, always willing to set in motion whatever means are deemed necessary to cut down his opponents – be they persuasion, bribery or acts of violence. Also on board is personal aide Kitty O’Neill (Kathleen Robertson) who is complicit in, if not the instigator of, most of the cover ups and propaganda that is spread, Kane’s wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen) and ambitious, womanising politician Ben Zajac, who Kane persuades to run for Governor with the Mayor as the power behind the throne.
Kane certainly needs all the help he can get, as his life and his grip on power both seem to be unravelling. In the open scene of the series, we see him being told that he has an incurable neurological disorder that will cause him to become increasing confused and finally lose control of his faculties altogether. He keeps this information private, and even arranges for his doctor to be first threatened and then forced to quit her job and move home by his private thug (Doug James), an unnamed figure who will do anything and everything, up to murder, to protect his boss.
Kane also finds himself caught up in a scandal involving the dumping of toxic waste, with information being leaked to investigative reporter Sam Miller (Troy Garity) by an anonymous source. His efforts to contain the scandal, fight off opponents who are trying to oust him from power and deal with his personal issues – including an estranged, former junkie daughter who is now a minister and free clinic worker hooked up with a drug dealer boyfriend – form the basis for this first season.
Kane is presented, in this first season, as almost irredeemable – but he is not that much more of a monster than the rest of the characters. There are few relatable, likeable characters in the show. Even those who seem to be trying to be decent – Miller; Kane’s daughter Emma (Hannah Ware) – seem susceptible to their own desires and worst instincts, while pretty much everyone else is corrupt and only interested in their power and personal fulfilment. By showing that Kane is not so much a monster as the extreme result of where ruthless ambition and human frailty collide, it allows him to be more human than we might feel comfortable with, and sets up a second season where things start to change in interesting ways.
Season two maintains the cynicism and the intensity of the first season, but allows the story to develop in fascinating ways. Kane is cleverly reconstructed so that he becomes the sympathetic figure, trying to do the right thing in the face of equally cynical, equally ruthless political opponents. In this case, the central story is the redevelopment of a poor black neighbourhood that involves the possibly permanent displacement of the local population, something that is only resisted by the supposed representatives because it breaks up their powerful voting blocks. It’s a world where drug dealers can transition onto positions of political power, where everyone is only interested in their own piece of power and where the politicians are willing to destroy their city just to depose a rival – and that’s only when murder or blackmail isn’t an option. Even the characters who you think have undergone some sort of redemptive change will, inevitably, let you down.
Trying to make the best of this is idealistic Mona Fredericks (Sanaa Lathan), who impresses Kane with her passion, and convinces him to follow her idealistic lead, making promises that the population will be allowed to return after this new development. Of course, this altruistic side of Kane is as much a side-effect of the dementia that he is secretly suffering from, and throughout the season, this mental illness gets worse, leading to near continual hallucinations in which Ezra Stone – who Kane had killed at the end of season one – appears to berate him over all the awful things he’s done.
Kane is also the near victim of an assassin, the bullet instead hitting his wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen), robbing him of a powerful ally as his grip on power is threatened, while newspaper editor Sam Miller (Troy Garity) continues with his obsessive mission to bring Kane down by proving his corruption and criminal activity. There are other side stories involving the supporting characters that weave through the season.
These are a lot of stories for the show to juggle, but it does so flawlessly, having all elements tied together and bringing each story eventually back to Kane himself. Over ten episodes, these disparate elements play out in often unexpected and complex ways, but all tie up nicely – or as nicely as you can hope for a series that was unfortunately cancelled after this season in 2012. This sudden cancellation means that the story is not wrapped up and several sub-plots are left open (a two-hour wrap-up movie was discussed but so far nothing has come of that). In a sense, that is frustrating, but it also, ironically, adds a sense of realism to events – after all, real life rarely gets neatly sorted out.
Slickly, stylishly produced, Boss is clearly going to draw comparisons to the likes of The West Wing and The Sopranos with its combination of political intrigue and criminal activity, and it holds up well in those comparisons. This is without question the most politically cynical series I’ve seen – it’s to be hoped that the likes of Kane are fictional exaggerations and that politicians – at least outside of corrupt dictatorships – are not actually having opponents beaten, blackmailed and murdered, but of course you never know… after all, we’ve seen the antics of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, a man who defiantly clings to office despite scandal after scandal (for the benefit of any lawyers reading, I am in no way suggesting that Rob Ford has had opponents killed). Suddenly, Tom Kane doesn’t feel that big of an exaggeration after all. “They know he’s corrupt and they don’t care” says someone of Kane in episode one, and perhaps that’s the depressing truth that the series uncovers – for all our moral indignation, we’ll vote for the politician who gets things done, who gets the best press or who simply represents the political party we support, no matter what they’ve done. After all, how many expenses cheats were voted back in at the last British election.
Grammer dominates the show, his performance a masterclass as he makes Kane tragic, terrifying and charming by turn. He’s matched by an equally stellar cast doing a first-rate job, helped tremendously by having fully formed, all too convincing characters to play. These are not easy characters to relate to – pretty much everyone is corrupt, or scared, or ruthlessly ambitious – but they are made real and convincing thanks to the brilliant writing.
The intensity of the narrative is ramped up by the visual style of the show. This is a programme that knows when to allow silence – visual as well as auditory – and frequently uses tight, hand-held close-ups of hands and faces to allow an insight into the mind games and mental anguish that the characters are undergoing. With directors like Gus Van Sant and Mario van Peebles on board, the drama is handled well with impressive, sometimes genuinely unsettling visuals, and the opening title song, with Robert Plant singing Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down sets the atmosphere nicely. It’s also uncompromisingly adult – there’s plenty of swearing and a number of pretty explicit sex scenes. And none of this seems gratuitous or forced. These are people who use sex as a negotiating tool, fucking each other in all meanings of the word.
There’s an obvious nod to Orson Welles in this story – if the name of the central character doesn’t give it away, then the codename of the ‘deep throat’ informant, Rosebud, should be a major clue. Kane is a man who has achieved greatness and now sees it slipping away, through the machinations of others and his own failing body and mind, but who refuses to let go without a fight, no matter who he hurts. This is a man who will sacrifice his own daughter, after finally reconciling with her, for political advantage and who will stop at nothing to crush his enemies. Yet he is also shown to be a successful and popular Mayor. For him, and those around him, the goal is continuity of power, even if the superficial players change – “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, as The Who once sang.
It’s this overwhelming cynicism and lack of empathy for characters that I imagine did for the show in the US. It’s easy to see viewers, watching in the traditional weekly linear format, deciding that they really didn’t want to return to this world where everyone is corrupt in various degrees. Boss works best when seen as a handful of continual chunks – a few episodes today, a few more tomorrow – allowing you to be drawn into the intrigue without a week to decide that you really don’t like any of these characters enough to find out what happens next.
Boss is not easy viewing. There’s no satisfying sense of punishment for the guilty here; instead, lives are destroyed and the machine moves on. But in a world where we are ever more distrustful of our politicians – and with very good reason – this is certainly a show for our times.