Boss makes its bold ambitions clear from the opening credits. A host of big names are dotted across a broad panoramic sweep of Chicago’s landmarks, neighbourhoods and historic figures. And it’s all set to Robert Plant’s “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.?
There is little time for positivity in US “prestige dramas” and that is undoubtedly what Boss aspires to be. What happiness does exist for Mayor Kane – the titular Boss – and the rest of the cast is tainted by the zero sum behaviour it required. Wars are never won, only battles. Victories are just LinkedIn bullet points for people who believe in the divine right of their own surname and think that Darwin plagiarised Sun Tzu.
There are no peaks to conquer in Boss, just an elevated plateau to reach. It is inhabited by the few people who understand that to remain above everyone else requires the never-ending accumulation of power. This is where Tom Kane’s (now incapacitated) father-in-law once resided and where Kane now resides. When he visits his former patron, it is clear that he disdains him for the man he has become. Seemingly only dropping in to remind himself how pitiable a man without power is.
The violence emulates Reservoir Dogs in its intensity and on occasion, very literally. Whilst the sex scenes are as rough as the politics. Typical alpha male fantasies – in an ignominious display of equality – are initiated by both genders. Acts which in any other context would start out: “Dear Penthouse, I never thought this would happen to me but…”
In some ways, Boss goes too far trying to prove its prestige credentials. There are an unnecessary amount of Shakespearean allusions, with enough soliloquies to satisfy Hamlet and every major character has at least one monologue per episode. The fluency and rhythm of these speeches are enjoyable, but only if you can tolerate the incongruity of so many Type A characters ceding the floor to their rivals for that long.
Yet for all its eloquence, this isn’t an attempt to emulate the West Wing. There is far too much Realpolitik for this to be a world Aaron Sorkin would ever create. Besides, when you watched the West Wing you wanted to be amongst the characters. To be one of the good guys, doing the right thing and making a difference. In an arrogant moment, you might wish to be one or two of the characters from Boss, but you certainly wouldn’t want to spend time amongst them.
There have been accusations that Boss is unrealistic, but it doesn’t come across that way. Chicago is a city tainted by corruption. This is undeniable. Since the seventies, Illinois has convicted two Governors, two congressmen, a state treasurer, an attorney general, and more than 1500 others of political corruption. In an environment where crime clearly flourishes, to not give artistic licence some leniency seems foolish. Boss may over-dramatise elements, but it never feels outlandish.
Macbeth’s tragedy was that he destroyed the good in his life through the pursuit of power. Tom Kane would see the parallels. Unlike Macbeth, Kane recognises his own mortality early enough that he has a chance to redeem himself. The journey he embarks upon to do this is well worth watching.
Boss Season 1 is available on DVD from 10th June 2013