I was browsing through Netflix looking for another show to watch. Boss, a grim and grimy political drama from 2011-2012, starring Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane, corrupt mayor of Chicago, looked interesting. I’d enjoyed House of Cards and I like Kelsey “Fraser Crane” Grammer. So I started watching it.
My basic reaction after the first two or three shows, well after the first show if you must know, was: WTF! I thought House of Cards put politics in a bad light, but this! If one were to go through each series counting up the acts of humiliation, brutality, deception, double-crossing, and murder, I don’t know how the two shows would line up. But Boss just felt worse, though it’s been awhile since I’ve watched any episodes of House of Cards. Maybe it’s that Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood seemed a bit more likeable, though he actually murdered a woman with his own hands, which Tom Kane hasn’t yet done. Who knows?
And then there’s plausibility, which is a peculiar consideration. I understand that politics is brutal, that corruption is real, but this? And the thing is, I don’t know how to judge such things. I’ve never been inside a corrupt big-city political machine so I have little life experience against which to judge what Boss is showing me. I mean, like, I’ve just watched Marco Polo, where the Great Khan executed men by having them trampled by horses, where Marco was forced to brand his father’s hand, where a Chinese ruler broke a young girl’s feet; and I just watched a movie where King John ordered a baron’s hands and feet chopped off, and then had his carcass thrown over a wall; but Boss seemed more brutal even than that.
But it’s not the physical brutality; it’s the moral brutality.
In the first episode we learn that Mayor Kane has a degenerative neural disorder that will kill him in three to five years. Whatever he’s doing, he’s working against that. And yet it almost seemed pasted on, not really organic to the plot and plotting. Certainly Kane had been brutal and corrupt before the disease.
Warning: spoilers coming up.
As the show unfolded, that disease became more tightly woven into the action. Kane decided not to tell anyone about his illness, not his closet aids, not his wife, not his daughter. But of course he had episodes where the disease reminded him of his mortality, a mental lapse, a hand tremor, that kind of thing. Kane had to secure illegal drugs, and made arrangements through his long-term adviser, Ezra Stone. When those arrangements fell apart, necessitating the murder of his supplier, he turned to his estranged daughter, who ran a medical clinic in a ghetto. When he needed a diversion to take the heat off his corruption he arranged to have his daughter’s clinic raided and his daughter throw in jail. Now he got to play the grieving but morally upright father.
In the last episode of the first season he had a heart-to-heart with Stone. It seems that Stone is the one who’d been undermining him. He sensed that something was wrong with his boss, that the boss’s decisions no longer made sense, and so he decided to go after him. I forget just how it that he came to tell Kane all this, but I didn’t find that terribly convincing. But when Stone failed to make it through the episode, well, sure, that was convincing.
But the show was not. Kane’s disease still felt like a plot device, and no more. Was it supposed to humanize him somehow, make us feel a bit of sympathy for this brutal narcissistic man? If so, it wasn’t working.
At this point you might be wonder just why, if the damned show wasn’t working for me, why did I bother to watch all eight episodes in the first season? Ordinary curiosity and professional curiosity. The second is easy. I’m a professional student of culture and, as such, I’m quite willing to watch TV I don’t find compelling. As for ordinary curiosity: How long can this go on? Is it going to change?
And it has. I’m three or four episodes into the second season and it’s gotten more interesting, somehow more believable. Just what or how that’s happened, is not clear to me. Perhaps I’ll say something about that a bit later.
Right now, though, I want to go meta. As should be obvious from what I’ve said so far, I’ve been having difficulty figuring out how to react to Boss, difficulty making sense of my own reactions. In that situation I find it useful to get another opinion.
So I went to the IMDB and got links to some reviews. The Wall Street Journal review was useless and clueless enthusiasm:
... most everything else here is dark as midnight. Or makes a nasty sound, like Kane in his kitchen grinding up the severed ears of a political factotum who has dared to cross him. Get a repairman, he tells his wife later, the garbage disposal is broken.
The New York Times review, by Alessandra Stanley, was more useful. Here’s the opening paragraphs:
“Boss,” a series on Starz about a crooked Chicago mayor, is almost good, and it falls short for the same reason that the George Clooney movie “Ides of March” isn’t good enough. Both are political thrillers that romanticize malfeasance, imbuing corruption with a sinister melodrama that defies common sense and cheapens the thrill of bad behavior.
Voters don’t trust elected officials, but Hollywood doesn’t trust itself to do politicians justice; screenwriters keep piling operatic misdeeds onto characters whose strength lies in their huge capacity for pettiness.
That last sentence makes sense to me; it feels like Stanley’s reservations are similar to mind. So it’s not just me; someone else both likes something that’s going on here, but also think’s there’s something amiss. I like her final paragraph too:
There are movies and TV shows about politics that tempt viewers to fast forward through the details of governing to get to the juicy parts. “Boss” is the opposite, a smart look at political power brokers that gets silly on the subjects of sex and violence.
For that matter, I like the whole review, which also references The Wire, but that’s enough to give you a feel for it.
That review appeared just before the premier of the first season. I don’t know how many of the first season episodes Stanley watched, perhaps all eight of them. I wonder if she ever watched season two and if so, what she thought of it.