One of the few TV shows I watch with any regularity is Boss on the Starz cable channel. I’ve seen both seasons now. I was interested from the very beginning, both as a former Chicagoan and lover of good TV shows.
What I hoped would eventually develop into an insightful look at urban politics with complex characters, centered around a powerful man’s descent into madness and enfeeblement, has never risen above melodrama. No cast or director, no matter how talented (and the cast of this show is great, along with the direction), can rise too far above the material handed to them.
Kelsey Grammer as Mayor Tom Kane is riveting to watch. But I can see why he didn’t get nominated for an Emmy. It’s not his performance. It’s the writing. Beyond a desire for acquiring, keeping, and using power, I don’t know who Mayor Thomas Kane is.
I have no sense of why the people of Chicago vote for Kane every four years. What has he accomplished for the city?
Too much elementary information about Kane has been left unprovided. Where is Kane from? If Chicago, which neighborhood did he grow up in? What are his ties to that neighborhood? If not, what brought him to Chicago? Where does his base of power reside? What about his parents and family? Does he have any sisters or brothers? Cousins?
If Kane is the hollow center of the show, then the supporting characters are the thin shell. They share certain degrees of power-hungriness, but we never really see what’s in it for them. There is only the grim serious business of using power to solidify power. No one, not even Kane, seems to relish the power they have. The drudgery about it all is relentless.
The melodramatic twists (“a casino development!” “a councilman is buried six feet under!” “a bastard son!” “Mrs. Kane fucks a powerful man not her husband!” “Ezra Stone murdered!” “dude gets his ear cut off!” “a phony assassination attempt gone bad!” “the lover of the GOP gubernatorial candidate murdered!” “Kitty shows her titties!”) only seems to underline the desperation of the writers to juice the series. This is what happens when you don’t have full-bodied characters: you use plot twists to keep the viewers’ interest. The twists would be more credible if the political machinations were allowed to simmer a bit more (thus providing a bigger impact) while the characters are allowed to grow with their struggles to survive in this milieu.
Oh, and could someone maybe crack a joke? Just once?
There are exceptions to all this grim power-hunger in the characters of Emma Kane, Sam Miller, and Mona Fredricks. But Emma is either looking for a fix, emotionally over-wrought, or emotionally over-wrought looking for a fix. Sam’s desire to get to the hidden truth about Kane’s corruption has led him on frantic trips around Chicago, to Canada and back. But then we got sidetracked with an implausible “relationship” with Kitty, the mayor’s former aide.
Mona has by far the most depth of any character on the show, gambling her years-built, well-respected reputation in the community that Kane would do something good for that community. Only she got burned. (Meanwhile, Kane’s sudden, perverted fascination with her is developed and then suddenly dropped.)
If you take the time to watch all 18 episodes you will have learned nothing more than that politicians can be greedy and power-hungry. You can see that in the news every day.
To understand how a particular city like Chicago can come to be ruled by one extraordinary man, you need to read Mike Royko’s classic, the original Boss. Royko accomplished in a little over 200 pages what Boss the TV show has so far failed to do in 18 hours: bring to life a glorious, troubled city, it’s power structures, and the man who rules it all.