Brace yourself for Boss (Friday, SuperChannel, 9 p.m.) – it’s brilliant, shockingly good TV. And further evidence that TV drama can engage especially well with politics, with a moral urgency that is both illuminating and entertaining.
Boss is utterly and precisely focused on Chicago politics and it has a corrosive bleakness that’s very adult, very aware. (The show comes at last to Canada, having started on the U.S. channel Starz last year. It was nominated for two Golden Globes and Kelsey Grammer won for best actor, drama. If you didn’t subscribe to SuperChannel to see Homeland, do watch this.) And after a long career in comedy it gives Grammer a career-defining dramatic role.
From the foggy, grey Chicago scenes in the credits (Farhad Safinia wrote it and Gus van Sant directed the first episodes) to the long opening scene, it’s clear this is storytelling with gravitas and a sense of menace about delivering the truth. In that long first scene Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Grammer) is told at a secret meeting with a doctor he has a degenerative disorder that will impact his physical and mental health. His grim face stares back, unflinching. The viewer senses this man is already sick, in the ways that addiction to political power makes men sick.
So Kane continues going about the daily business of running Chicago. We meet his icy wife (Connie Nielsen), who is as distant as she is cunning. We meet his top adviser (Martin Donovan), a man who shrugs at the most appalling of political actions. And there’s the mayor’s other adviser, Kitty (Canadian Kathleen Robertson, who is awesomely fine), also icily steeled in ruthlessness. There are speeches to be made, favours to call in and machinations to further. Throughout, Tom Kane is a grim, reptilian godfather, always in control. What is particularly well done is the quiet tone, delivering a sense of the ordinariness of the awfulness of politics.
Then there’s a scene, midway through the first episode, which is breathtaking. Kane has been crossed by a trade union. He meets a union boss in his office, with advisers in attendance. There’s chat and, in an instant, he unleashes an attack on the union guy, so foul-mouthed, threatening and terrifying that viewers feels the fist-in-the-face impact. Boss is deeply impressive, a living and convincing picture of politics as it plays out in grim reality.
We live in a fine, fertile period for television. Right now we have a spring packed with compelling new and returning series, all signals that television shifts to the core of what’s culturally important. The spirited intelligence of so much writing for television is a thing to behold and cherish.
I’ve said that before and I say it again because, especially in the area of politics, television is exemplary at confronting and depicting the gnarl of politics – the ceaseless clashing of ideals, orthodoxies, commerce and communication. The theatre of politics, the raw, mean spiritedness on which political power rests.
Meanwhile, there’s Scandal (Thursday night, ABC, CITY-TV, 10 p.m.), a new legal show that’s really about Washington politics. Coming from Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy, it’s her attempt at a sizzling twist on The West Wing. The central character is Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), a lawyer who runs a crisis-management firm. Olivia was a key campaign adviser to the U.S. President on the show (Tony Goldwyn) and in the first episode there is a strong storyline about negating accusations made against the President by a female staffer. That negation is done with pitiless harshness.
There is barely a character who isn’t a lying, manipulating monster. This is The West Wing devoid of idealistic people. Some of Scandal does indeed sizzle, but it feels forced, frantic. I saw the pilot almost a year ago and even then it felt dated – the picture of Washington power plays is a tad too fuzzy. Too often a crack team of crisis specialists tell each other they are “gladiators in suits.” It’s no Boss, but it’s interesting to see such unbridled cynicism about Washington power players on conventional network TV.
Also, check out Magic City (Friday, SuperChannel, 10 p.m.) a new, flashy miniseries that on the surface is about Miami in 1958, but is really about politics – the politics of commerce, unions, the mob and, of course, real holders of public office.
It opens on New Year’s Eve, 1958, in Miami Beach, at the gorgeous Miramar Playa Hotel. Hotel-owner Ike (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is worried. A union is picketing, Frank Sinatra is supposed to sing that night, the Kennedy boys are supposed to attend and in the kitchen, the Cuban staff are listening to a radio report that Havana is about to fall to Fidel Castro. There is also the small matter of Ike’s fiscal backer, mob boss Ben (Danny Houston), whose nickname is “The Butcher.”
Union troubles are squashed with brutality. Nobody sees what the Cuban situation means. Naked women swim in pools under a dazzling sky. Magic City feels on the surface like Mad Men-meets- Boardwalk Empire, but it’s really about debauchery in the face of political shifts that no one yet grasps. It’s good, not brilliant yet, but very impressive.
Politics saturates all these shows, and we’re certainly not on The West Wing any more.
All times ET. Check local listings.