Episodes of the new Starz drama “Boss” open with Robert Plant’s version of the traditional gospel standard “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.”
In all of its incarnations (I’m partial to the Uncle Tupelo cover), “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is a pretty simple song and the core lyrics boil down to basically what you see in the title.
I’m suspecting that it’s no coincidence that whenever I hear “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” my mind immediately goes to Tom Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole,” which has a similar message about the allure and power of Beelzebub and the saving capacity of [Christian] faith.
The magnetic power of our baser instincts and the way those baser instincts run through the broader institutions of the American City were central to David Simon’s exquisitely woven “Wire” tapestry and they’re not far removed from what Farhad Safinia is tackling in “Boss.”
In “The Wire,” The Devil was in the institutions, the forces the prevented even the best of individual instincts and aspirations from breaking through the complacency of the system. While Simon had pockets of hope — sometimes wide swathes of hope — he was ultimately profoundly pessimistic. Good cops. Good teachers. Good union organizers. Good politicians. Good journalists. They all fought to keep The Devil way down in the hole, but Old Scratch kept getting out a wreaking havoc. “The Wire” was about the way an American city functions, but doesn’t work.
Having seen two episodes of “Boss,” I can’t instantly tell you Safinia’s world-view. I know he’s nowhere near as overtly political as Simon and, in turn, I also suspect he’s nowhere near as pessimistic as Simon. The series may be about the fall of a Great Man, but I don’t know if Safinia wants us to view Kelsey Grammer’s Tom Kane, longtime mayor of Chicago, as the symbolic “Satan” referred to in the opening song. It’s entirely plausible that the political system in Chicago, long entrenched and long variably corrupt, is meant as Satan. But through two episodes, I don’t know if Safinia is wanting viewers to root for Kane and/or the system to collapse, or if he’s showing a landscape in which the evil that men do is capable of leading to a collective good for the community.
I sense that the opening songs are meant to tie “Boss” and “The Wire” together in some sort of collective meditation on the evil inherent in the urban space. Although I don’t feel like “Boss” is anywhere near that “Wire” level of discourse — literally nothing else in the history of the small screen is — I admire its willingness to dive into the sort of terrain that TV ought to be well-suited to explore, but so rarely does. I can’t even say that “Boss” is on the same level as Shawn Ryan’s “The Chicago Code,” which used the police as a pivot for delving into all aspects of the Windy City, but “Boss” is what’s on TV right now and if it lives up to even some of its ample potential, it could become a series of some substance. That’s a rare thing and one worthy of investing in.
More after the break…
As I mentioned earlier, “Boss” is about Mayor Tom Kane, a man who believes that the people want to be led and that sometimes they have to be led with an iron fist. But a city with as many racial, economic and ethnic special interests as Chicago can’t be controlled with an iron fist. It’s requires a time-worn mixture of consensus-building and compromise, albeit of an occasionally violent nature. Mayor Kane knows how Chicago runs and he, with the hope of trusted lieutenants like Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) and Kitty O’Neil (Kathleen Robertson), does it well. And not content to merely rule over his own fiefdom, Kane has now hand-picked State Treasurer Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) to challenge the state’s governor.
But there’s a complication: Mayor Kane’s iron fist has a new unsteadiness. He’s just been diagnosed with Lewy-Body Dementia, a disease that shares characteristics with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Suddenly a man with absolutely power is unable to control his own body and his own mind.
The Lewy-Body diagnosis comes at the very beginning of “Boss” and it puts into motion what is inevitable. I mentioned that this is the story of a Great Man’s downfall and that’s inevitable, whether that downfall is put in motion by political forces or physical. I think the question, one that I don’t know the answer to, is whether we’re supposed to feel like Kane’s potential decline is a boon to the city and to those who love him. He’s the hero, but he may also be the Satan whose kingdom must come down.
Thankfully, “Boss” isn’t a redemption narrative. Mayor Kane is told to expect hallucinations and mental instability, but I don’t think we’re supposed to anticipate that ghosts will start coaching him to become a better man. Yes, Kane seems interested in possibly mending fences with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and differently estranged daughter (Hannah Ware), but there aren’t any suggestions that his political approach or desires are shifting.
What are Tom Kane’s politics? I don’t know. He may once have been a Willie Stark-style populist, but we’re seeing the character well into his journey, as compromised and blustery as Broderick Crawford was playing Stark at the end of “All the King’s Men,” rather than in the beginning. He’s fighting for Chicago and that presumably means that he’s a Democrat, but “Boss” is about process rather than ideology. “The Wire” was able to be about both process and ideology, but that was because “The Wire” was brilliant and because it aspired to both goals, while “Boss” may prefer to look at the brutal theatrics of power (which probably contains an ingrained ideological critique of some sort).
In this context, “Boss” is about Kane and therefore “Boss” is about Kelsey Grammer, whose performance is utterly transformative. Kane may look like Frasier Crane and he may share Frasier Crane’s voice, but I found it easy to let the sitcom legend shuffle off his comedic coil. Kane is a master orator and it’s no surprise to see Grammer inhabiting that aspect of the role, but when he gets to play Kane’s viciousness and his almost hypnotic force of will, this is Grammer like we’ve never seen him before. He has a mesmerizing monologue in the opening episode that isn’t quite Shakespearean in its prose, but which almost rises to that level as Grammer tears into the words. And when Kane’s underlings sit and watch him without emotion, we know that we’ve seen him do this before and we believe it completely. With this performance, Grammer instantly thrusts himself into the middle of an already over-full Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy field for next year.
Grammer and Kane’s demonstrative and external expression of influence and power is contrasted by that of his wife Meredith, who comes from a Chicago political family. She’s stone-faced and difficult to read, but Nielsen leaves no question that Meredith is a dangerous woman. Playing understated and internalized gives Nielsen a tricky task and she does it compellingly, though the actress’ native accent periodically pokes through and caused me minor confusion. I’m still waiting for a clear view of the character, but I’m interested in watching. The same is true of Ware’s Emma, though my initial sense is that the character is more problematically written and played and may not have as satisfying a payoff. Emma could be used to force an interesting side exploration of religion and its role in the city, but I’m not sure how well that’s likely to work out based on its introduction here.
Since I’m more interested in the process, I’m also more interested in the political supporting characters. I like the snake-like smoothness that Donovan brings to the table and how it’s contrasted with Robertson’s brittle and brusk professionalism. Robertson, a favorite dating back to her days on the real “Beverly Hills, 90210,” has one of her best characters in years. Some people will say that the sex scenes featuring Robertson’s character are part of Starz’ ongoing commitment to gratuitous nudity and sexuality, but I felt like both sex scenes I’ve seen have played with the familiar dynamics of sexuality, gender and power and that they were driven more by character than by boobs. Others may disagree.
I also was interested by Hephner’s character and performance, which are only just beginning to show the motivations and peculiarities that lurk beneath Zajac’s Kennedy-esque surface.
All of the actors, and the city of Chicago, are well served by “Boss” pilot director Gus Van Sant, which captures both the city and the actors on both micro and macro levels, with illuminating close-ups, but also a scale that recognizes Chicago’s many neighborhoods and its sprawl.
Conventional critical wisdom says that “Boss” is Grammer’s show and that he’s the main (and possibly only) reason to watch. I see more potential in “Boss,” if Safinia continues to prod at the Chicago underbelly and if he continues to keep the theme of the the title song in mind. [If “Boss” wants to pull a “Wire” and swap covers each year, there are plenty of variations to choose from.] And even if the lack of ideological engagement ends up leaving “Boss” short of its potential, yeah, there’s always Grammer.
“Boss” premieres on Starz in like five minutes.