Judge Clark Douglas' corruption is only matched by his incompetence.
Betrayal starts from within.
"The old gray mayor, he ain't what he used to be."
Facts of the Case
Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer, Frasier) has just been diagnosed with DLB, a degenerative neurological disorder that works quickly and unmercifully. Over the next few years, his memory will start to go, he'll begin to experience hallucinations and his body will slowly but surely begin to give out on him. Tom has essentially been handed a death sentence, but he's eager to hang onto his position of political power for as long as he possibly can. In his role as mayor, he's proven himself as an immensely effective politician; a savvy puppeteer who is willing to do all kinds of horrible things in order to get things done. He's backed by a remarkable staff, which includes political advisor Ezra Stone (Martin Donovon, Weeds) and personal aide Kitty O'Neill (Kathleen Robertson, Beverly Hills 90210). However, the success of Tom's political life is contrasted by the wreck that is his family life. He has a very chilly and distant relationship with his wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator), and he hasn't seen his daughter Emma (Hannah Ware, Cop Out) in ages. How long will Tom be able to hide his condition from his staff—or more important, the voting public? Is there any chance that he'll be able to reconcile things with his family before it's too late?
Boss wants nothing more than to be a truly great television show. Within minutes, it's clear that the series is aiming for the lofty heights of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. However, in its quest to be a great television show it sometimes neglects to simply be a good television show. Yes, it's filled with big moments and big themes, but after eight episodes I'm not entirely sure that I really enjoy hanging out with these characters all that much (something I would never say about any of the other aforementioned shows, no matter how despicable some of the characters on those programs may be). There's potential in this show, but given the minuscule ratings I'm not sure the program is going to stick around long enough to actually reach it (despite the fact that Starz renewed the program several weeks before the show actually premiered).
The program begins on a stark note: Tom Kane is being given his diagnosis. Grammer aces the scene, conveying terror, sadness and rage in an extended close-up while the doctor details his condition. It's an important scene, as it allows us to feel some measure of empathy for Kane even as we watch him engaging in diabolical behavior over the course of the following episodes. However, we also feel our strings being pulled just a bit. The character feels too much like a carefully-constructed composite of other popular and critically-acclaimed cable television antiheroes like Walter White ("He cooks crystal meth, but he's trying to provide for his family and he has cancer!") and Don Draper ("He's a sexist jerk and an adulterer, but he's hiding a dark secret and has a great deal of pain buried within him!"). However, I'm not entirely convinced that Boss really knows who Tom Kane is or what to do with him. At the moment, he feels like little more than a creation pieced together for the sole purpose of allowing Grammer to do some Sorkinesque Emmy-nomination-grabbing speechifying. The lyrics are there but the notes are wrong.
Another problem: the scope of the series is simply too large. It would be one thing if Boss were The Wire (yet another acclaimed cable drama it clearly aspires to be), but its portrait of Chicago's complicated web of politics, business and criminal enterprise feels superficial and conventional. Almost any of the supporting characters could potentially deliver something interesting: the neurologist, or the journalist, or the corrupt governor, or the preacher/daughter, or the aides, or the drug dealers, or the construction foreman, or the nurse, or…well, you get the idea. But there are too many of them, and the story has trouble fusing their lives together in an engaging way. Watching the show attempt to pull this off while getting so many basic things wrong is immensely frustrating.
Additionally, the ambition of the series is consistently undercut by the fact that Boss seems entirely too desperate to promote itself as an "adult" cable drama by employing gratuitous profanity and nudity. I'm no prude when it comes to this sort of thing (I'm a big fan of Deadwood and Game of Thrones, shows that respectively feature considerably more cussing and sex than this one), but these elements feels very forced in this particular program. The sex scenes are hilariously gratuitous in a Cinemax sort of way, as the should-be-persuasive drama simply grinds to a halt while a couple of attractive supporting players get busy with each other in a series of embarrassing ways ("Hey, let's just stop in the hallway and do it in the middle of The West Wing-style walk and talk!"). Just as awkward are the clunky f-bombs that are forcefully inserted into the dialogue; some of the cast members just aren't that good at making it sound like a natural part of their normal speech.
Still, it must be admitted that part of the frustration lies in the fact that this really could be a good show. Heck, it actually is a good show from time to time. Alas, the moments that work are spread too thin. Watching Grammer bring his A-game to the table and deliver his speeches with Shakespearean thunder makes one desperately wish that the strength of his performance was tethered to better writing. The man is clearly a terrific dramatic actor despite his career in comedy, but not everyone can be so lucky as Bryan Cranston when it comes to making that transition. The supporting cast doesn't make a huge impression in general, but Connie Nielsen and Kathleen Robertson are doing good work here. The direction is generally stellar (Gus Van Sant helmed the pilot, but things are pretty consistent in this department throughout the entire season), production values are strong and the show does a fine job of capturing upper-class life in Chicago (not so much with lower-class life, but hey, take your victories where you can get 'em). The problems lie in the writing, which simultaneously attempts too much and does too little. A terrific series exists somewhere inside of Boss, and I hope someone is able to find it before it's too late.
Boss: Season One (Blu-ray) sports an impressive 1080p/1.78:1 transfer that fares well during both the brighter daytime sequences and the moodier, shadowy nighttime scenes. Detail is exceptional throughout—sometimes uncomfortably so during some of the way-too-close close-ups the show is fond of employing—and depth is strong throughout. Flesh tones are warm and natural while blacks are satisfyingly inky. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track fares pretty well when the show manages to provide enough sonic material to justify its existence, but this is largely a dialogue-heavy drama without much in the way of spectacular sound design. Still, the overqualified track gets the job done nicely. Supplements are on the thin side: two audio commentaries with creator Farhad Safinia and cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, plus a fluff-heavy 16-minute chat between Safinia and Grammer entitled "The Mayor and His Maker."
Despite its overreaching tendencies, gratuitous indulgences, mixed performances and lack of focus, I'm certainly not ready to give up on Boss. There's enough quality sprinkled into the mix to give one hope that things could be much better. Here's hoping the program gets where it needs to be in season two.
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