"Veep," "Political Animals," "Scandal" — if you were to take a measure simply from scripted TV, our view of politics has become cynical indeed (and not without justification). But none of them can top Starz drama "Boss," the second season of which starts tonight, August 17th at 9pm, the darkest political portrait of them all.
Starring Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane, the mayor of Chicago, the Farhad Safinia-created "Boss" has such a cold-eyed view of governmental maneuvering that you'd think it's main touchstone is "Game of Thrones" rather than anything related to the contemporary real world — and not just because, in what's still the show's most indelible image, Kane took delivery of a pair of human ears from someone who'd displeased him in the pilot, and after acknowledging them fed them down the garbage disposal.
And yet "Boss" is more micro than the other current series mentioned above, all of which take place at a White House level — it deals with Chicago specifics and with the tanglible realities of running a city in addition to the politicking and power plays. One alderman is swayed by an offer of help to prevent the parking in her district from going metered. Kane's treasured project, the one he's been battling for in his time of crisis, is an expansion of the O'Hare International Airport.
While many of the machinations in "Boss" are heightened — people are whacked, family members brutally turned on for the sake of reputations or individual gain — other incidents are refreshingly small and specific. It's people, not larger and more abstract parties, that need to be placated with promises and gestures, dinners and public shows of support. The actual grind of getting votes, of dealing with the different communities in the city and their individual, conflicting wants, is a constant murmur in the background, the soundscape against which the show's larger dramas play out.
In its second season, "Boss" continues to be chilly and remote while showing the odd flash of brilliance. The basic stuff of the show is undeniably solid, particularly its distinctive, unusually cinematic look. Executive producer Gus Van Sant, who directed the pilot (tonight's season premiere was helmed by Jim McKay), left stylistic traces to which the show returns, moments of intense, dreamy subjectivity in which the camera closes in on details as if mimicking a character's drifting attention.
It's a quality that matches up with Kane's mental and physical disintegration, with his slipping reality. At the outset of the show, he's diagnosed with the degenerative neurological disorder DLB, an illness he immediately decides to hide from everyone in his life, causing the doctor who's treating him considerable woe to make her keep his secret. He's determined to remain in power for as long as possible not because there's something in particular he wants to achieve, per so, but because it's such a fundamental part of who he is, even as his condition causes hallucinations that pop up like ghosts of his sometime regrettable past.
Grammer is magnetic and impressive as Kane, always dead-eyed underneath the smiling, public persona, the kind of man who'd pat you on the shoulder and ask about your kids while arranging with one of his aides to have your mistress go to the press about you that evening (and almost everyone has a literal or theoretical mistress hiding somewhere waiting to bring them down). But Kane's a difficult protagonist to know what to do with — he's Walter White if we'd never seen him vulnerable, if we'd caught up with him when he was already a frightening tyrant and then were asked to care when his cancer finally returned and he had to confront his coming death.
In "Boss," the only hope we can have in this bleak picture is for a flicker of idealism, of consistent humanity in an otherwise wholly political animal. Kane is so ruthless that any investment we have in his staying in power is primarily predicated on the other options being just as problematic. Gubernatorial candidate Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner), who needs Kane's support but chafes under his heavy-handed control of Zajac's campaign, is the hot-blooded antithesis to Kane's calculation, but easy infidelities and impatience make him seems like someone destined to be broken by a system in which only the cool heads prevail. And every other alderman and aide is relentlessly self-serving, unwilling to think of a larger picture that will do them no good.
It's only the new addition of Sanaa Lathan as the genuinely good-hearted Mona Fredricks who offers a bit a light in the show's dark world. And even she makes a potentially Faustian compromise in choosing to work for Kane because it means having a chance to actually help the community she's trying to protect. And Kane, in return, is fascinated with her and her family in way that's lustful but apparently not sexual — she's the person that he, in formulating his end game, wants to become again, though he may never have been like her to begin with. It's telling that the major suspense in "Boss" is not whether Kane's secret will be discovered, but whether a legitimately well-intentioned person can survive in the innately morally toxic environment that is the world of politics.