Today, only praise for a show and two actors. A show that is hard to love, but should be worshipped. As many bosses in many workplaces hope to be.
Boss, which ends its second season on Friday (in Canada on SuperChannel, 9 p.m.), has not received the attention and praise it deserves, both here and in the United States. There, it airs on Starz, a cable channel with far less clout and impact than rivals HBO and Showtime. Here, it’s on a channel that has an abundance of excellent programs – it also airs on Homeland – but not enough people are aware of it.
It’s a pity because Boss (Farhad Safinia’s first TV project) has a breathtaking dramatic imagination, bravura acting and the forceful impact of a highly intelligent, illuminating examination of power and politics. Mainly power.
In its focus on Chicago politics, a notoriously corrupt arena, it adopts a point of view that is bleak to the point of being withering. It’s astutely adult, very aware. At times, your skin crawls at the depiction of the ruthlessness of its characters and the utter emptiness of their victories. Best of all, it has a plausibility that is bracing. For all its dramatic sophistication and twists, it rings horribly true. That, too, might be a reason why it is less loved than other great cable dramas. There’s a near-nihilism to it. It’s so good that it gives you the creeps, as powerful drama should.
If you need catching up, Kelsey Grammer plays Chicago mayor Tom Kane, secretly suffering from a debilitating illness. He strives on regardless, punishing his enemies, spying on those he despises or lusts after, and manipulating with a chilling level of skill. Kane suffers from a God delusion. He believes himself all-powerful and, largely, he is correct. Only the disease can thwart him.
Grammer, who deservedly won an Emmy for Boss last year, is magnificent. His enraged face staring out at an enemy is toad-like, emphatically malevolent, and his fuse is very short. There have been scenes of Kane unleashing his fury that feel, even to the viewer, like a hard slap in the face. His favourite retort, when pressed on anything, is: “Never question my judgment!” He is an Old Testament God in his formidable authority and satanic in his wrath and cunning.
While Grammer is doing late-career-defining work in Boss, one has to be in awe of Canadian Kathleen Robertson in the role of Kitty, a Kane aide now departed from his office and manipulating the race for governor of Illinois with a feral callousness. Kitty is the most viciously complex of characters and Robertson is intimidatingly good.
Her character spent much of the first season in the humiliating role of sex thing to the callow Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner), Illinois state treasurer and candidate for governor. He groped and had sex with her in offices, hotel lobbies, washrooms and hallways. Her motivation was always unclear. Kitty was then, and is now, a calculating political operative and a depressed, self-loathing woman.
In one of the most disturbing scenes this season, she attempted to connect with political journalist Sam Miller (Troy Garity), who wants the goods on Kane. She put his hand under her skirt and then faced the look of horror on his face. Unable to understand, she fled to a washroom, expecting him to follow her. When he didn’t, the overwhelming sense of humiliation oozed from every pore in her thin frame. To call the role of Kitty a challenge for any actress would be a profound understatement.
As the season ends, Kane has been hobbled again by his illness. (The only weak episode this season was one that saw him escape to Toronto for secret, unproven treatment.) His city council cronies have rebelled against him. His wife (Connie Nielsen) knows more about him than she wanted to know. His daughter (Hannah Ware), a drug addict, is unravelling. Yet Kane can survive, largely because of the fear he inspires. Or can he?
Boss is shockingly good, an evocation of emotions that can make viewers deeply uneasy. Maybe that why it has found praise but not affection and complete admiration. You need grown-up eyes to watch it. Open them.
Also airing tonight
Ethel (HBO Canada, 9 p.m.) is an oddity of a doc. It’s a very affectionate look at the life of Ethel Kennedy, wife of Robert F. Kennedy, and a woman who has rarely spoken in public since his assassination in 1968. What is odd is the fact that it is made by Rory Kennedy, the 11th child of Ethel and Robert, born a few months after his death. Ethel herself is a reluctant subject, but polite and, obviously, could be persuaded to talk and reminisce only by her daughter. For the most part, it is members of the large Kennedy clan who talk about Ethel. There is an element of high-grade home movie to the project and, simultaneously, a fascinating act of mythmaking.