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TV Waffle - Boss

In 'Boss', Frasier Crane has left the building. This is Kelsey Grammer playing in grown up cable telly. That's grown up in the sense of swearing and nudity as opposed to grown up witty storytelling. Grammer attempts to destroy the iconic image of fastidious, aspiring cultural snob in his performance as Tom Kane. Venal, corrupt, slowly dying of a degenerative brain disease Mayor of Chicago.

If Aaron Sorkin in 'The West Wing' is showing an idealized fantasy version of American politics in which hard working diligent politicos aspire to be better and always strive to do the right thing no matter what side of the gubernatorial fence they sit on, series creator Farhad Safinia wants to show you the dark mirror image. Degenerate, corrupt public officials who are only interested in lining their own pockets, smearing their opposition, and murdering anyone that gets in the way of the political agenda.
Sorkin on occasion overplayed the saccharine to the extent that on occasion it became 'The Walton's' on Capital Hill. Safinia seems to be looking at the cesspool of American politics through the prism of 'Scarface'. By the end of the first episode, Mayor Tom Kane has been sent, gift wrapped, the ears of an errant lackey which he nonchalantly throws into the waste disposal. If you balk at this then it may be a good idea to jump off now. This is more 'Sopranos' with Brooks Brothers suits and Ivy league credentials than Capra-esque political wish fulfillment.
The series follows Kane's attempts to increase his power base and legacy during the election for Governor of Illinois, in which he secretly undermines incumbent McCall Cullen to support young upcoming State Treasurer Ben Zajac. All whilst concealing his disease from those around him, including his estranged wife and daughter. All this plus toxic dumping, illicit sex and political murder form the backbone of the first season.
In what has become a standard formula in American TV, the first episode is directed by a big name Hollywood director (in this case Gus Van Sant). This is the work of efficient anonymous Van Sant from 'Finding Forrester' and 'Good Will Hunting' rather than the testing, difficult director of 'Last Days' and 'Elephant'. There is no challenge to the expected orthodoxy of American television.
As a new show it certainly opens with swagger, the opening credits are great and in the performance of Grammar, which veers from spectacularly grouchy to wheedlingly self sentimental, has a compelling nexus from which to spin its web of political intrigue. One scene of what can only be described as power shitting as a way of exuding power over a business ally must be a Television first.
The ancillary cast is also magnificent. Hal Hartley alumni Martin Donovan is particularly good as political fixer Ezra Stone. Jeff Hephner as Aspiring Governor Ben Zajac also projects just the right amount of "aw shucks" can do political attitude tethered to the sexual sophistication of a jock pledging for his fraternity house. There's even room for Hill Street Blues star Daniel J Travanti as political financier Gerald 'Babe' McGantry.
It's the female casting that is more problematic. There is an unhealthy misogyny that permeates this show which allows it's female characters to be either cheap fantasies torn from the letter pages of unimaginative porn mags or sinister Lady Macbeths pulling the strings behind the throne.
Take Tom Kane's Daughter Emma. It's never entirely sure what she is. Half Priest? Half Nurse? She is definitely a recovering drug addict running a free clinic in a rough part of the neighborhood. That's fine, but she also has a taste, it seems, for ghetto drug dealers, which allows us to experience numerous sex scenes that seem to be there for the delectation of its male viewers rather than in any way furthering the plot. Or there is Kathleen Robertson as Kitty O'Neill, political aide to Tom Kane and strategist for Ben Zajac. Presented in stereotypical terms with pulled back blonde hair and big glasses like a clichéd secretary from a 'Carry On' film. Just waiting to loosen her hair and take her specs off for the admiration of her male colleagues. Instead the creators go one better and make her a predatory sex addict, indulging in an illicit and at times unbelievably public sexual affair with Zajac.
This would be less problematic if Both Kane and Zajacs wives were not presented as dangerous, conniving power players out to further their own ends at their partners' expense. It is this juvenile sensibility that scuppers much of the good work done by the show. Is the sexing up of the show a lack of confidence in the appeal of a political thriller? Are the creators' heady with the freedom that cable TV allows? Or just the interference of fledgling network Starz, creators of tits and gore fest 'Spartacus' is uncertain but it certainly stops it reaching the heights of the best of American TV.
As noted before, the plot machinations are also more closely in tune with that of a gangster movie than political thriller. Rivals are shot, stabbed and buried alive. Grammer more the Capo of a crime family than Mayor of Chicago. Obviously this is intentional, the creators nudging you in the side letting you know that the line between gangster and political ruler is very thin indeed, particularly in Chicago with it s rich history of criminal misbehavior. The trouble is as themes go it's not a particularly sharp one. The insights it gives are familiar political tropes, not overly inspired. Zajac is a political horndog who seems to be screwing his way to Capital Hill. Politicians will use spin and subterfuge and put pressure on the media to further their agenda. In the world of the internet and twenty four hour news none of these seem like shocking revelations.
The best use of political machinations is in an episode revolving around the toxic dumping plot in which the Mayor's team try to change the use of Chicago from the news report to that of the town affected to localize the story and distance it from the Mayor's office. It's a refreshing and excitingly told hour of television which would have been a more rewarding direction for the show than the more tawdry elements it brings to the fore.
With a second season made but as yet unaired on British television, 'Boss' has now been cancelled. There is talk of a movie being made to wrap the show up. The same idea was mooted when 'Deadwood' was cancelled and that has still been unrealized. It would seem unlikely that this show will be concluded to the audience's satisfaction.
It's a difficult show. It's not without merit and the gradual degeneration of Kane, of which the surface has only just been scratched in this first season, would surely have led to some grandstanding writing and allowed for some ripe scenery chewing from Grammer.
At 18 episodes in total it may be worth dipping your toe. But in summation this is not particularly deep water that you will be treading in. It's a show that thinks its much smarter than the audience and in truth it's not. If you want smart, go with David Simon. If you want politics, 'The West Wing' is still the high watermark.

Jason Abbey