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.