October 20, 2012



Few television series have worked so hard to be unlikeable as BOSS.  There had been some thought, after its initial off-putting season, that when Starz replaced series creator Farhad Safinia with Dee Johnson as showrunner, the aim might have been to water down some of the show’s bile, but such was clearly not the case.

The series, which concluded its second season last night, has pushed its protagonist, the fictional Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) of Chicago, far past such “dark” TV heroes as Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Don Draper, or even Walter White.  All of those men have had some version of a moral code, however warped, and some sense of lines that wouldn’t be crossed, usually having to do with their families–hell, even the creatures who want to destroy humanity on True Blood have a certain grandeur.  Kane, though, is an out-and-out monster, not just a corrupt politician but quite literally responsible for multiple murders–perhaps the idea is for his evil to be Shakespearean in scope, but one can’t compare him to, say, Richard III, because at least Richard had wit and took some pleasure in his evil, while Kane is just doggedly committed to preserving his power in any way necessary.  The series doesn’t even give Kane any worthy adversaries.  In fact, it’s gone out of its way in both its seasons thus far to have Kane systematically destroy the most sympathetic and morally (comparatively speaking) innocent person around:  his own daughter Emma (Hannah Ware) in Season 1, and staff member Mona Fredricks (Sanaa Lathan) this year, in both cases not because it was essential to his own survival, but simply to further his purposes.

Boss is an intelligent, accomplished, extremely well-acted show, but it’s difficult to watch, because there’s more positivity in any episode of The Walking Dead.  Even Kane’s Lewy Body Dementia, which we’re told will ultimately kill him, doesn’t humanize him in any way, merely providing more pretext for him to ruin the lives of others.  When you find yourself rooting for a show’s main character to suffer more serious and incapacitating symptoms of his fatal illness, the show may be pushing its uncompromising vision a bit too far.

Even putting aside its horribly bleak world-view, Boss made some missteps in its second season.  Visualizing the hallucinations Kane would experience because of his disease almost exclusively as visitations from his dead victims, especially Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) was simply a cliche, and again, if the intention was to evoke Shakespeare’s ghostly visits, that’s not a comparison the show was in any position to want.  Kane’s fascination with Mona, which presumably was supposed to have led to his actions regarding the local projects being torn down, never felt convincing despite the attempt, again, to blame it on his illness.  The revelation in the season finale (written by Johnson and directed by Jean de Segonzac) as to the true identity of super-ambitious staffer Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff), although one could justify it in terms of his character’s actions throughout the season, became bizarrely melodramatic in light of his various relationships.  Similarly, one can hardly understand Kitty O’Neill (Kathleen Robertson) wanting to return to Kane’s bruising regime unless it was as some kind of self-flagellation.

No one can fault Grammer’s wholehearted commitment to Kane in all his infamy (although one wonders if Grammer, a very public Republican, would be as willing to make Kane so wholly ugly if the character belonged to his own political party).  The supporting cast is also reliably excellent, including Roberton, Groff, Ware, Troy Garity as the crusading and of course doomed reporter who goes after Kane, and Connie Nielsen as Kane’s wife, who really had an opportunity to shine in several episodes this season where Kane was off in Canada getting treatments.  Jeff Hephner, as a gubernatorial candidate, had to steer his character past quite a few overloaded plot turns this season, and did so successfully.  Even in smaller roles, Francis Guinan as the current governor and Amy Morton (currently brilliant on Broadway in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) have been superb.

Starz rushed to order a Season 2 for Boss before the series even premiered (then did the same thing with Magic City), but it’s been conspicuously quiet about a renewal for Season 3.  The ratings are fairly lousy, with around 500K total viewers combined for both Friday night airings (about half of them under 50), but because Starz is a pay service, its revenues don’t relate directly to ratings.  More important is whether the show is a buzz and awards magnet that will attract and retain subscribers, and while Grammer’s participation has brought the show a fair amount of attention, the sheer amplitude of its wretched portrait of not just politics but humanity may not encourage viewers to cast their votes for the network.  One has to respect Boss, which doesn’t hold back on its artistic vision.  One doesn’t, however, have to enjoy it.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."