The Chicago depicted in Boss is somewhere between Gomorrah and a sordid dystopian future, less a city than an allegory of corruption. Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer), recently diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder, knows that his “kingdom” must and will come to an end, but the timetable is still a bit up in the air. The show’s theme music reminds us each week, “Satan, your kingdom must come down,” yet we don’t know how many more functional years Kane has left, which allows the writers to set baleful machinations in motion only to later dissipate all sense of urgency. This is an often excruciating exercise in postponement; every time the end of Kane’s rule seems near, he regenerates his power with a cacophony of verbal, physical, and emotional violence. As a result, Boss only narrowly manages to turn the question of how long Kane has left into something more than a referendum on how many seasons the series has on the air. The show features some of the best acting, directing, and writing on the small screen, but sometimes a successful run is best cut short—in television as well as politics. Boss needs to impose a firmer deadline on the mayor’s demise.
Luckily, there’s a sensual aestheticism to the proceedings that represents more than cable television’s latest attempt to infuse a show with cinematic credibility. The series features disconcertingly extreme close-ups on eyes, lips, and hands, as well as shots with depths of field so narrow that half of an actor’s features are blurred. The camera moves lightly yet erratically, as if unsettled. Images feel flattened, hazy, and stifling, and Kane’s mental lapses are evoked through an effective use of jump cuts and an eerie soundtrack. It’s hard to say to what extent this attention to craft might stem from director Gus Van Sant’s role as executive producer, but the style seems more keen on referencing other directorial heavyweights’ forays into television, particularly Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Both those shows demonstrated a love for the more visceral pleasures of television, with von Trier taking cues from the hospital drama and Lynch from soap operas. Boss’s first season was initially so intent on appearing cinematic that it missed out on such pleasures unique to its own medium. The tone was so dour, the characters so heinous, that viewers had to overcome the pleasure principle just to hit play.
Boss softens its approach in season two, introducing a few new characters who are easy on the eyes, while allowing one of the show’s most treacherous individuals to play the “I just got shot in the chest” sympathy card (hint: it’s not the mayor). After having had a hand in the murder, mutilation, and intimidation of countless loyal subjects, Kane seems intent on achieving some kind of redemption. The exposition, which was previously nonexistent, is subtly and cleverly woven into the narrative: There’s a public housing ordinance in the works, and Kane wants to do the right thing by providing support to impoverished residents who will need to be relocated. Kathleen Robertson initially seemed miscast as political aide Kitty O’Neill, looking like a soap star with a good poker face and a sexy librarian outfit, but here she pulls her weight with impressive results. The series handles her character’s abortion with remarkable subtlety, and her decision to work for the mayor’s Republican rival is a welcome move toward self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, the mayor’s hallucinations become more surreal and elaborate (though never achieving the grandeur of those in Twin Peaks, The Kingdom, or even Carnivale).
Though the series has its share of larger-than-life moments that ring hollow, its knack for extracting quiet beauty from all the mayhem lends Boss’s best scenes the precision and artistry of a monstrous ballet. When Kane’s neurologist tells him that he’s “not God” and that his “best days are behind him,” the mayor rationalizes, “I have purpose.” But with the prospect of six or seven more seasons on the horizon, it seems fair to wonder whether the series can hold onto its sense of purpose for much longer, as Kane begins to lose his.