As Starz’s “Boss” enters its second season Friday night at 10, the political drama remains a show I find much easier to admire than to enjoy.
“Boss” continues to have many qualities worth commending. The series still offers Kelsey Grammer giving a magnetic, career-redefining performance as ailing Chicago mayor Tom Kane. It still has a distinctive, impressionistic visual style that takes a photogenic but familiar city and makes it feel like a place no one has set a movie or TV show before, and the look marries well with the show’s stylized dialogue. And in reshuffling its cast a bit this season to deal with some of Mayor Kane’s actions at the end of last year, “Boss”has added several interesting actors, notably Sanaa Lathan and Jonathan Groff, whose function seems to entail more than just standing back and admiring Grammer while he chews the scenery.
Even with that larger-than-life character and performance at its center, and even with an overheated style of plotting suggesting that 21st century Chicago politics isn’t that far removed from the days of the Borgias, “Boss” has always felt oddly cool and detached. I can sit back and marvel at the way Grammer commands the screen, and clinically appreciate the way the show’s directors (Jim McKay is behind the camera for the season premiere) have continued the visual template set up by Gus Van Sant in the series’ pilot.
But I rarely find myself emotionally engaged in any of it. It’s a show dealing with many grand issues (death, legacy, corruption) and flashy incidents, yet all of it tends to wash over me without generating a response beyond, “Interesting.” I’m not sure exactly how producers Farhad Safinia (the show’s creator) and Dee Johnson (a TV veteran brought in to provide support this year to relative newbie Safinia) want me to feel about Tom Kane or the world he commands, but I imagine they want me to feel something.
Part of the problem is that “Boss” is such a profoundly cynical show, where everyone who matters is motivated primarily by self-interest (even crusading reporter Sam Miller, played by Troy Garity, wants to prove he’s smarter than everyone else) and where every human relationship is revealed as a fraud to either be exploited or sacrificed depending on what’s politically expedient. When you go in saying that everyone is a phony, you create a great uphill battle for viewers to climb to make any genuine connection to them. It can be done, but not easily. “The Sopranos” is among the most cynical works of fiction ever written, but it was done with such style, humor and specificity that it made a bond with its viewers anyway – they may not have always liked Tony, Carmela, etc., but they felt like they knew them.
Even as “Boss” reveals so many details about Kane, about his wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen), pretty boy gubernatorial candidate Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) and new aides Ian Todd (Groff) and Mona Fredricks (Lathan), the show always seems to be holding them at a remove from the audience. They’re to be looked at, but not touched.
The new season also brings with it a significant downturn in Kane’s secret struggle against Lewy Body dementia, as the hallucinations that were an occasional issue last season start occurring with alarming regularity. On the one hand, these hallucinations give the “Boss” directors and technicians a chance to show off a bit; on the other, they add yet another layer of distrust into the show, because even a sincere, straightforward scene can now be revealed to have taken place entirely in Tom Kane’s head.
Grammer is outstanding enough on his own to merit watching. It is a committed, unapologetic, at times spellbinding performance, and is every bit worthy of the cable anti-hero drama tradition that Starz boss Chris Albrecht helped start when he greenlit “The Sopranos” at HBO. “Boss” as a series, though, still doesn’t seem like it’s quite there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org