The Chicago-based political melodrama Boss, which returns for a second season tonight (10 pm, Starz), is not subtle, nor did it ever pretend to be, and its super-wonky political maneuverings and soap-opera plotlines don’t always mesh. It’s Cognitive Dissonance Theater. (Spoilers follow for those who haven’t seen Season One.) One minute you’re admiring a fine bit of reportorial brushwork that could only have been rendered by a political insider, and the next you’re guffawing at a ludicrous broad-brushstroke image, such as the sight of mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) regarding a box containing the severed ears of a poor schnook who was causing him trouble. Or yet another Fatal Attraction-like carnal interlude between the show’s biggest sexaholics, Tom’s ex-aide, Kitty (Kathleen Robertson) and the mayor’s married protégé/rival, treasurer Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner).
Despite its purplish grandiosity – imagine The Tudors in 21st-century business casual – I stuck with it up through the weirdly seppuku-like killing of Tom’s cagey consigliere, Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan): Whacking the coolest (in every sense) character on a series dominated by blowhards seemed a huge error in judgment.
The premiere picks up right after the finale with Tom visiting his neurologist, Ella Harris (Karen Aldridge), in what looks like witness protection; his hallucinations are getting worse as his neurological disease advances, and he’s wondering how much longer he can hold on to the power he’s amassed. Alderman Ross (James Vincent Meredith), who got paddled by the mayor for plotting against him, is re-energized by a new advisor, community activist Mona Fredricks (Sanaa Lathan). They plot to turn a proposed vote on the Lennox Gardens public housing project, which is at risk of being destroyed by new development, into a racial wedge issue. “It’s your concern that I find…most attractive,” Ross says, looming over the seated Mona. Kane’s rival, Ben, just won the Democratic party nomination for governor and is facing a strong Republican opponent, but he’s still distracted by his secret affair with Kitty, who dared plot against Tom and was ejected from City Hall for disloyalty. The Chicago Sentinel’s new editor, Sam Miller (Troy Garity), is still hot to take down Tom Kane, but his corporate owners panic when he pens an anti-Kane editorial and advertisers pull out. The mayor’s wife, Meredith (Connie Nielsen) is distraught about her father and seemingly icked out by her tactically motivated tryst with a much older city father (former Hill Street Blues star Daniel J. Travanti). Storm clouds are gathering; you just know that something ghastly and capital-B “Big” is about to happen, and sure enough, Boss does not disappoint. Or maybe I should say that it can’t resist. It’s shameless that way.
After watching the first three episodes of season two, I won’t take back any of my initial gripes about this series. But I will give series creator Farhad Safinia (who also co-wrote Apocalypto) credit for chutzpah, as Boss has doubled-down on its Boss-iness. The visuals are more flamboyantly cinematic, the theatrical metaphors more florid. The dialogue isn’t on-the-nose, it’s punch-you-in-the-nose. When the shell-shocked Tom has his first serious talk with an avid new advisor, Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff of Glee, selling sociopathic ambition with a smile), he says, “A kid with your inexperience doesn’t land a position like this unless he’s fucking somebody hard” – long pause -- “in either sense of the word.” And the show is more enamored than ever with European Art Cinema-style montages that blend dream imagery and “real” incidents. The first couple episodes have a near-Lynchian creepiness, with the camera chasing Tom through the corridors of hospitals and government buildings as ghosts appear and vanish, florescent lights flicker, and animals slither, skitter and flutter in and out of the frame. We can’t be sure how much of this imagery is produced by the mayor’s degenerating nervous system and how much is an expression of the moral rot that’s finally settling in after a professional lifetime of treachery. Tomato, tomahto – and it’s more interesting for being undefined. The show is at its best when it’s purely cinematic; when the characters stop talking, sit there silently, and think thoughts that we’ll never hear articulated because, verbose as they are, they can’t find words to express them.
Boss’ mix of deft footwork and bull-in-a-china shop clumsiness can be off-putting, but it’s always anchored by Grammer’s alternately scary and mournful lead performance, and you’re never in doubt that there’s a fully formed sensibility behind it. It’s William Shakespeare Comix transplanted to modern Chicago, a lurid pageant dominated by Lady Macbeths, Richard IIIs and Iagos. It seems to think that pretty much everyone in politics and journalism – and perhaps the world at large – is driven by greed, lust and power, even when they tell themselves otherwise, and that decency, however laudable, is a sucker’s game. Nice guys lose their ears.