Lionsgate // 2012 // 450 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // July 29th, 2012
Frasier has most assuredly left the building.
Almost lost in the midst of the furor over Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Luck, and other assorted cable series was a small series on Starz about a corrupt politician. Pre-premiere response was so strong that Starz approved a second season before a single episode had aired.
The show was met with praise from the critics, and indifference from everyone else. I did mention this was on Starz, after all. Lionsgate now brings us Boss: Season One.
Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer, Frasier) is the mayor of Chicago. He decides what gets done, what is left undone. He decides who gets his party's nomination for governor of Illinois. His rule is absolute.
And he's dying.
He has just been diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, a degenerative brain disorder that will kill him in a few years, but not before it destroys his mind. His political might is useless against this new enemy.
As he tries to come to terms with his fate, he tries to move forward, tapping Alex Zajac (Jeff Hephner, The O.C.), the young state treasurer, to challenge the incumbent governor for the party's nomination. Just as his physical power is threatened, so too is his political power; a decades-old secret from early in his career emerges, sparking a scandal that threatens to topple his empire. His top political advisor (Martin Donovan, Insomnia) and his top aide (Kathleen Robertson, Hollywoodland), both ignorant of his medical condition, work feverishly to protect him. For his own part, Kane struggles to maintain power while keeping his condition secret from everyone, including his political wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator) and his estranged daughter Emma (Hannah Ware), a priest who runs a clinic in the inner city and who has demons of her own. Circling around the whole thing is that most dangerous of creatures, an idealistic reporter. In the midst of all this, Kane starts to realize that he's already become symptomatic.
Everything is coming to a head right before the primary election, when we learn just how far Kane will go to stay Boss.
After one episode of Boss, you will never look at Kelsey Grammer the same way. He is a towering presence, controlling the narrative even when he isn't on screen. He has his big over-the-top moments -- his dressing down of the Illinois governor is a masterpiece of invective -- but it's in the quiet scenes that Grammer humanizes the character, an absolute requirement for a character like this. The opening shot of the series is simply a close-up of Kane's face as the doctor explains his condition; there's no overt reaction, no twitching or wringing of hands. However, you can see everything going through Kane's head: the indignity of being brought low by a mere disease, the fear of losing his faculties, and worst of all, the realization that he's on the verge of becoming Ozymandius. That's the shot that sets the tone for the series, establishing Kane's iron will, and it's the shot that ultimately pulls you into this most unsavory of political worlds.
Grammer proves more than adept at nonverbal acting as well. To escape the pressures of the job or his home, Kane stops in to visit Meredith's father, the previous mayor. The thing is, Rutledge suffers from advanced Alzheimer's and is completely unresponsive. As Kane watches the caregiver feed and clean his father-in-law, he can't help but wonder how long it will be before he will be receiving such care himself.
Grammer is capably abetted with several other strong performers, most notably Connie Nielsen as his wife Meredith, the daughter of the previous mayor. The Kanes' marriage is based on politics rather than love, and Meredith proves to be just as shrewd as Tom. In fact, there's a sequence in which Kane almost goes medieval on a councilman, abusing him verbally and physically, Grammer's stentorian bellows threatening to tear the very fabric of reality asunder. Right after that, Meredith dresses down one of her political/business partners. You can tell that she's just as pissed as Kane was earlier, that she's just as ruthless, and that she has no qualms whatsoever about destroying the person who has failed her -- and yet she doesn't raiser her voice so much as a decibel. Theirs may be a marriage of political convenience, but it's an effective one.
The storyline, very much operatic in tone and execution, is in its own way compelling, partly because the strong performances (most of them, at least), but also because there's an air of mystery to the proceedings, with multiple subplots weaving in and out of the larger tapestry. We slowly see Kane backed into a corner from which there is no apparent escape -- but we also know that Kane will stop at nothing to survive. We're pulled in, almost against our will.
Technically, the disc is quite good. Shot on digital video, the show has a strong visual style, established in the first episode, directed by Gus van Sant, that emphasizes natural lighting, giving you nice, gloomy shadows to swallow up the evil that men do. The surround sound is strong as well, though most of the time it doesn't get to do much; it is impressive in several crowd scenes.
There's a handful of extras. "The Mayor and His Maker" is a making-of featurette built around an interview with Grammer and creator/writer Farhad Safinia (who also co-wrote Apocalypto with Mel Gibson) is interesting, but somewhat fluffy. There are a couple of commentary tracks as well, featuring Safinia, director of photography Kasper Tuxen, and executive producer Richard Levine is somewhat engaging, but at times gets a little too self-congratulatory.
The commentary tracks note that they aren't going for realism here, which is a good thing, because they don't achieve it. The appeal of The West Wing (for me, at least) is that it posited a presidency grounded in idealism. This Chicago is at the other end of the political spectrum, as far removed from any notions of idealism or public service as one can imagine. The Godfather movies had Kay as the audience surrogate, the person on the outside looking in. There really is no such person here. There are times when you have to wonder if there is anyone in this city with the slightest vestiges of morality. After watching four episodes back-to-back, I felt as though I had just gotten a forty-eight-hour pass from the bowels of hell. Intimidation, assault, blackmail, even murder -- no one is innocent here, and at times that can get overwhelming. You're either a political player or you're a victim, with no apparent middle ground. At some point, and exactly where that point is will vary from person to person, the sordidness becomes just a little too much; the season finale, in particular, is beyond over the top -- though I must admit to being intrigued as to how the second season plays out.
The bulk of the subplot with Kane's daughter Emma is a waste, partially because Hannah Ware's performance isn't strong enough to support the screen time she gets -- as soon as you start wondering why we are bothering with this character, you see one of the big season-end plot twists coming.
This is cable, so we do have a fair amount of nudity, some of which is actually relevant to the plot -- but in some cases, you get the feeling that they were on set and the director said, "Hey, our ratings are tanking. Can we show some boobs in this shot?"
Boss is a compelling show, in large part due to Kelsey Grammer. In an attempt to keep the show from getting lost in the fall season, Starz has moved the Season Two premiere up to August 17. Here's hoping that the move succeeds, because while it's certainly not for the faint of heart, it has a certain perverse charm about it.
Where do I go to stuff the ballot box for Tom Kane?
Review content copyright © 2012 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 450 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site