“When Truman nuked Japan, when Lincoln sent boys out to kill their cousins, you think they gave a shit about their approval rating?” Probably not. When US cable service Starz aired Boss, a stylish and powerful political drama, starring a formidable and ruthless Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago, do you think they cared about their viewer rating? Probably yes actually. And like most shows whose viewer count is severely lacking, Boss brutally met the chopping block after just two series. Why was the axing so brutal? Because it was a damn good show. Any good show being cancelled after just two series is disappointing, but in the case of Boss, whose plot was driven by a definite resolution coming like a freight train from the first, the severance was tragic. And not least of all because the show could have easily been wrapped in three series, creating a solid and brilliant package with a clear beginning-middle-end construction. But whilst Boss’s demise may be mourned by some (a very few, fans who likely stumbled across without anticipation), it still has a legacy – for all the narrative set-ups and unresolved storylines, twists and open ended character arcs, in the two series it ran for the show was as cold-blooded, dangerous, stimulating and down-right stylish a heavyweight drama as has ever been on television. Need some convincing? Try this on for size.
Shot one, scene one, episode one of Boss opens in a disused factory – barren, open, bleak – an isolated swivel chair is taken by, wait, is that Frasier? Yes it is! But hang on. It is Kelsey Grammer, but weary and withered, old and cold and tailored in an impeccably sharp suit. He sits down slowly, his expression alleviating in seconds the beloved psychiatrist we know him for, annihilating the thread of crap sitcoms he did post-Crane and punching us with the harsh fact – whatever is about to happen, it is not funny. Off-camera a female voice gives him his death sentence – Lewy body dementia – a degenerative neural disease, progression is slow, irreversible. It causes death in three to five years and it’s side-effects include full-body tremors and hallucinations. The man in the chair says, “I can’t shake.” And here, in three words, you have the core of Boss.
Tom Kane is the mayor of Chicago, the most powerful, public and dangerous man in what he considers to be the, “most American of cities” – Kane’s love for Chicago is undoubtable, it is in a sense his only true love, and control of the city, by any means, is what he lives for. He is Pharaoh, Emperor, King, an unmovable object – stubborn, tyrannical and lethal to all who oppose him (quite literally in certain cases), he cannot afford to shake, but now his Kingdom is in danger. But it is not from any one political opponent or climate shift, it is his own mind that is collapsing, effecting his judgement, decisions, priorities. But Boss is too clever to say that Kane is his own worst enemy, and the show unfolds to reveal no end of cutthroat politics, corruption, vile lechery and complete black-heartedness of virtually everybody involved, and everybody is out for power, whatever it takes. In his mind Kane is far from his own worst enemy, it is his unquestionable resolve and utter determination which have made him the kingpin of this city, where backdoor-deals and blackmail are paramount to political success, and fair-play has about as much currency as the tooth-fairy.
It is the combination of Kane’s deteriorating capacity for mental function, countless unrelenting figures hungry for power and the duplicity and betrayal of those closest to him that are the sum threat to Kane, and he is not beyond the most abhorrent of actions to not only stay ahead, but also revive himself from the stumbles and pitfalls of the hot water that surrounds him. There are multiple aspects at play in this story of absolutes, Meredith Kane is a calculating and dangerous parasite who is Kane’s wife only for the cameras, his daughter Emma is living a life severed of her parents embroiled in the underground drugs trade, and a young stallion who strives for public office presents himself as the fresh face of politics, but his sordid private conduct could bring about extinction before he is even on the map. But make no mistake, this is the story of Tom Kane, a character who at times borderlines sympathetic, but will always conduct acts of necessary evil, or even despotic cruelty to remain the Boss.
The first series consists of eight episodes, introducing the mayor and his office, and the public revelation that in his previous role for the city as sanitation commissioner Kane illegally dumped vast quantities of toxic waste, which has proven to be the cause of multiple cases of cancer in young children. Needless to say, children’s health is not the concern for Kane or his office, but instead the battle for survival amidst the storm of media speculation and public backlash, through lies, coercion and even murder. And all of this is happening while Kane is trying to hide a hallucinogenic, shake-inducing terminal illness from everybody… well almost everybody. It is a solid, dramatic and deliciously well-paced story arc, which is sublime to look at (for all it’s moral corruption Chicago looks beautiful), ranges from elegant to destructive in it’s application, and is amazingly sexy, visually and actually. At times the whole thing feels like an illusion, not purely through Kane’s uncontrollable trances, but the mesmeric use of focus and light, trippy editing and the overall sanguineous, lurid atmosphere that permeates it all. If this doesn’t make for good television, nothing does.
The show was broadcast in the US on the subscription service Starz in 2011, and a year and a half later came to UK screens on More4. With any luck the second series, which has less impact but is every bit as compelling and sumptuous, will also be imported and improve Boss’s fan base, perhaps even resurrecting hope of a feature length film to conclude it’s woefully severed storyline. If you’re a fan of sublime television, seek out this gem on DVD or Blu-Ray, series one is available now, and bloody good. There is perhaps no theme tune which better suits the intro of a show than Robert Plant’s Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, and Boss is every bit as good as it is evil. Watch it.