I have had—and continue to have—a lot of faith in Boss, but I think even the show’s biggest fans would have to admit that this first season has been frustratingly uneven. From moment to moment, Boss has seemed to teeter on the razor’s edge between the ridiculous and the sublime, never coming down completely on either side of the line. Those of us who have invested in it—and, sadly, there don’t seem to be many of us—have been waiting impatiently to see which way it was ultimately going to go.
Unfortunately, we’re still waiting. I would love to be able to report that “Choose,” the first season’s finale, fulfills the incredible promise of this show. (Stranger things have happened: at the end of the ropey first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, everything suddenly clicked into place in the season finale, and overnight the show seemed to become what it was always meant to be.) Instead, “Choose”—written by series creator Farhad Safinia, and directed by Mario Van Peebles—is the first season in small, a microcosmic representative that elicits the same combination of frustration and admiration I’ve felt since the premiere.
This will be my last post on Boss until it returns in 2012, so—instead of doing my usual in-depth recap of the episode—I’d like to take some time to discuss what I think is really working so far, as well as the problems I hope the creators iron out in Season Two.
I had some real problems with “Choose,” but, upon reflection, I realized that very few of my objections were related to the story itself. Boss has actually done an excellent job of developing this season’s overall story arc. The show has created and populated a large and complex political world in just eight episodes, and deftly maneuvered its many characters into position for this dramatic endgame. There have been a few questionable side-trips along the way—I myself could have lived without the nurse storyline, for example—but no outright derailments: for the most part, the series has moved steadily and logically along towards this conclusion. As a result, the importance and tension of this finale are earned, and that’s a tricky thing to pull off.
It’s trickier still to deliver the payoff for all this promised drama, and I think the showlargely succeeds here as well. Boss has set a lot of subplots in motion over the past eight episodes: we had Kane’s illness, the election, the toxic waste dump, the Sentinel, the city council shenanigans, Emma and the health clinic, Kitty and Zajac’s relationship, the Kane’s marriage, et cetera—and it has managed to not only bring most of them to fruition but also weave them together in ways that felt organic and satisfying. (A few minor storylines get dropped—what happened to all that Scientia stuff in the early episodes?—but the only major plot-line that never really works is Emma’s.) For the most part, by the time we’ve reached the finale, all the various threads have rejoined to form a coherent, integrous whole, and that’s impressive, smart storytelling. If I’m going to slam the writers in other ways—and I am—it is worth acknowledging first just how well they structured this complicated season.
Any discussion of why this show is worth watching—and worthy of a second season—has to begin with the cast: Boss has assembled a nearly flawless ensemble, led by Kelsey Grammer as Mayor Thomas Kane. For all my occasional griping about how Kane is sometimes written, Grammer is doing wonderful work here, and has created a character who is utterly believable even when called upon to do implausible things. Grammer inhabits Kane completely, and brings to the role tremendous and necessary gravitas, in both the modern and the original senses of the word: his Tom Kane is a dense, weighty, larger than life figure, around whom we can easily believe an entire city could orbit. The show would simply not work without a central performance that was so hefty and magnetic.
(Grammer is a shoe-in for an Emmy nomination, though I’ll be surprised if he actually wins; I suspect that the voters will resent the excesses in the writing that too often make him seem to be asking for an award, and that these big, shouty moments will make them overlook the quieter, remarkably subtle work Grammer is doing between Emmy-bait scenes.)
The supporting cast, thankfully, is playing on the same level as Grammer, with particular standouts in Martin Donovan and Kathleen Robertson. Donovan is one of those journeyman actors who has been around a long time—he has one of those classic where-have-I-seen-that-guy-before? faces—but his eight episode run as Ezra Stone deserves to make him a household name and move him to the top of some serious casting lists: this is a guy who desperately needs his own series. (And, sadly, he appears to have an opening in his schedule.) As the soft-spoken, introspective Stone, Donovan has a stillness and intelligence that absolutely commands attention; it’s a testament to Donovan’s incredible screen presence that, in his many scenes with the volatile Kane, Stone’s quieter half of the conversation always generates just as much fascination and suspense.
And though I’m not completely happy with the turn things took for Stone in this episode—more on that below—Donovan’s enigmatic, intelligent performance made the revelation of Stone’s betrayal perfectly believable in retrospect. I don’t know if Donovan—or even the writers—knew where this was going right from the first episode, but looking back at the earlier episodes now it is easy to imagine that we see the complex motivations—and even a hidden morality—beneath Stone’s polite, measured reactions.
Kathleen Robertson, too, has delivered an Emmy-worthy performance this season. Kitty, as written, has often been problematic: the early episodes didn’t seem to know what to do with her (beyond hooking her up for quickies with Zajac), but the back half of the season has made better use of Robertson’s considerable talents, and Kitty has emerged as a strong, intelligent, complicated woman. More importantly, Robertson brings so much subtext to each scene that—even when the writing lets her down—she manages to lift the character miles above the page. As is the case with Stone, Kitty is seldom given the big, showy speeches, but Robertson—like Donovan—is an actor capable of layering conflicted emotions beneath simple words and silent glances. (She barely has a word to speak this episode, but watch the complicated feelings that move across her face throughout: she’s a woman who has lost her mooring but none of her strength.) As a result, her character has become not only believable, but sympathetic and fascinating: as I’ve said before, she’s the closest thing we have to a relatable POV character, and hers is the story arc that has the most potential for Season Two.
The rest of the supporting cast is providing many wonderful performances as well. Jeff Hephner’s Ben Zajac actually becomes more interesting—and even more endearing—as he’s increasingly revealed to be a little boy wearing the stuffed shirt of a major player; I continue to enjoy the way Hephner plays the character as simultaneously sincere and vacuous. (Like Robert Redford’s character in The Way We Were, he’s a good-looking golden boy for whom everything—and, as it turns out, everyone—comes a little too easily.) Troy Garity is excellent as Sam Miller—he strikes me as an actor to keep an eye on—and I would probably watch a sit-com that consisted of nothing but the hilarious Governor Mac Cullen (Francis Guinan) abusing his long-suffering staff. (And—speaking of casting—it is thrilling to see one of Chicago’s best actresses, Amy Morton, turn up as the opposing candidate for governor.) Of the main players, only Connie Nielsen and Hannah Ware have failed to impress, and I suspect that is largely a function of the way their characters have—or, more importantly, haven’t—been developed. Which leads us to…
I will praise this cast all day long, but the sad truth of the matter is that they’re doing a lot of work that the writers should be doing for them. What—after eight episodes—do we really know about any of these people? I’ve said before that Boss maintains a strange distance from all its characters: we see what they do, and hear what they say, but we don’t really know anything about them. They have no lives separate from their functions. I can accept that Boss wants to focus on their professional lives—I can even accept that, for the lifelong politicians, they are unable to separate their lives from their work—but at some point we need to see the people behind the public image. We need to learn about their backgrounds; we need to know if they have friends and lovers; we need to get some hint of who they are when they’re not at work. Did Stone not have a family who might miss him? Does Sam Miller have a wife? Does Kitty not have a single friend with whom she can discuss her problems? Have Kane and his wife not forged one real emotional connection in their 30 year arranged marriage? (Meredith continues to be the most problematic character for me: Nielsen’s performance is fine, but I still feel as though Meredith is a complete enigma: she’s a persona, not a person.)
This is not an insurmountable problem—we are, after all, only eight episodes in—but I think it goes to the heart of the reason that Boss has struggled to find an audience. It is almost impossible to engage emotionally with characters who remain so emotionally unavailable to us, and to each other.
A larger, related problem is the way in which characters speak: this has been a problem with Boss all along, but it became impossible to ignore during the season finale: “Choose,” sadly, features the worst dialogue the show has yet produced. No one in this episode talks like a normal human being. Characters don’t speak: they give speeches, regardless of their audience or situation.
I don’t mind the florid writing when Kane—or any character—is fulfilling a public role: in this episode, for example, Kane makes the rounds and mobilizes his political cohorts, and it makes perfect sense for him to be speechifying. I do, however, object to character dialogue being just as stilted and writerly when characters are in private moments. It’s one thing for Eliot McGantry (Chris Agos), the lawyer in charge of the Bensenville lawsuit, to sound stilted and perfectly polished when addressing a room full of his class-action clients; it’s another thing for him to sound just as pompous to his co-counsel after everyone else has cleared the room. (Explaining why he is announcing the lawsuit on Election Night, he says, “When else but tonight is the entire state watching T.V.?” Who talks like that?)
Similarly, it makes sense for Sam Miller to sound a little pompous when he’s addressing his troops in his new role as Editor-in-Chief of the Sentinel; it does not make sense for one of his colleagues (Mary Hollis Inboden) to sound just as pompous when the two of them are alone in his office. (“Whether you like it or not, actual history is happening in the city tonight,” she lectures him. “Elections are matters of record, part of the life of the city and of its people, and it’s our job to record it.” This may have looked good on the page when Safinia was writing it, but you can see Inboden struggle to make the awkward phrasing sound natural.)
The trend is consistent throughout the episode—there’s barely a single line of dialogue that feels authentic—and reaches its nadir in a jailhouse scene between Emma (Hannah Ware) and her Rector (Henry Godinez):
Emma: “What, you want me to heal my relationship with God? He let me down. What I did was right! Where was He?”
Rector: “What are you saying? That somehow you are owed something? That you can strike some kind of deal with God? You don’t follow rules so that God will provide you with a safety net. The real test is when you don’t hear anything at all from him, and you still follow Him. He didn’t let you down because He doesn’t owe you anything. If you never saw the transcendent in all of this—if the church was just some form of self-imposed stricture to keep you sober—how did you expect it to work? You can’t trick it, Emma. That’s not how He works.”
I don’t care if you’re religious, a Rector in the Episcopal Church, or Jesus Christ Himself: no one talks like this, ever, outside of a pulpit. There are ways to write smart without being stilted; there are ways to introduce weighty themes without being ponderous; there are ways to discuss religion and ethics without sounding like your 21st century characters all just stepped out of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov. I get the impression that Boss thinks it can get away with establishing this hyper-stylized form of dialogue in much the same way that Deadwood did. But Boss doesn’t have the distancing device of Deadwood’s historic setting—it takes place in a recognizable and otherwise realistic modern world—and Safinia, for all his other considerable talents, simply does not have the ear for language that David Milch has. So far, the attempt to create a signature style of dialogue just undermines both the realism of the show and the genuine emotional content of the scenes, and makes it that much harder for us to engage with the characters.
As I mentioned in an earlier review, it was Meredith Blake at the AV Club who first characterized Boss’s main problem as “poor impulse control”—an observation I’ve happily and shamelessly stolen. On this front, Boss gets an “I” for “Improved”—the show has reined in many of its more melodramatic excesses—but it is still too likely to err on the side of sensationalism over sense. Stone’s death—both the decision to kill off the character and the way in which it was presented—is a good example of this.
The retroactive logic of the reveal—as I said above—is saved by Donovan’s complicated performance all season: it is just believable that Stone has been playing this complicated chess game since the beginning. However, that doesn’t excuse how quickly the betrayal comes to light, or how quickly Stone himself is dispatched. Apart from the incredible mistake of letting Donovan go so soon, it strikes me as a waste of real dramatic potential for the sake of a quick bang in the season finale. How much more effective might it have been to settle for revealing his betrayal to the audience in this episode? That would have provided us a promising storyline to play out over next season, and a powerful incentive for viewers to come back.
And the overly dramatic way in which the scene plays out is typical of Boss’s fondness for style over substance. It is unclear whether Kane and Stone really have a long, calm discussion about the form and necessity of Stone’s punishment—I read this scene as taking place in Kane’s mind, as he imagines what his formerly trusted counselor would advise him to do—but either way, the device of having Stone provide dispassionate voice-over for his own execution just elevates the absurdity. And no “character” exemplifies the Poor Impulse Control Problem better than the tiresome Grey-Haired Man (Doug James), the black-gloved angel of death who magically appears and dispenses threats, beatings, and murders on command.
Here, the execution scene simply doesn’t work: from the dramatic lighting and music, to the off-screen shooting, to Stone’s slow, bleeding walk across his apartment, the scene aspires to a heightened dramatic crescendo that just rings false. (I know Gus Van Sant can’t direct every episode, but Mario Van Peebles direction throughout “Choose” is painfully arch: he’s fond of extremely tight close ups and Dutch angles that make already portentous scenes even more hamfisted and unnatural.)
The best decision the Starz network ever made was to renew Boss for a second season before the first season even aired: this is a show that deserves to be given a chance to find its footing and find an audience. The cast is uniformly excellent, and the writers are aiming high and often reaching their target. When all the pieces click—as in the show’s best episodes “Remembered” and “Stasis”—Boss is as good as anything on television right now.
Starz apparently has faith in Boss, and so do I—but the show needs to have a little more faith in itself. My biggest fear is that the first season’s relatively low ratings will inspire the creators to go bigger in the second season—More sex! More violence! More speeches!—when, in reality, Boss is at its best when it’s not trying quite so hard. It’s not the big moments that are working: it’s the quieter moments, the small touches, the smart details and subtle emotions. The first season has assembled a top-notch cast, built it an impressively complex world in which to work, and established some admirable themes and stories for them to explore. What the show needs to do now is to trust itself, and trust its actors, and give us room and reasons to truly invest in these characters.