There’s something unique about made for cable drama series – whereas a network drama, the likes of a 24 or a Good Wife will start off a season with an idea or general overview of where that season’s narrative will head, they often fly by the seat of their pants, with their content often governed by the whims of advertisers, networks and the feedback of an audience. Also, keep in mind that writing 24 good 45-minute episodes of a drama series cannot be that easy.
Cable programmers go into production on a show with a 10-12 episode arc, and each episode within the series is written well before shooting starts. Episode 12 is locked in before episode 1 is shot. That’s why you see shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones build in the slow-burn style. Single moments in one episode that may have seemed insignificant end up being anything but. As the season’s narrative unfolds, it becomes a richer, far more satisfying viewing experience.
As much as you like a 22-24 episode season of a network show, the whole thing can be a completely different animal by the time the season wraps as opposed to when it began – decisions made by advertisers, the whims of a fickle viewing public, or anxious, marketing-driven network executives. On cable, ratings be damned, advertisers are not part of the picture. Positive or negative reception aside, you finish what you started.
Boss is a show made for the American ‘Starz’ cable network. (Starz is like HBO, or Showtime and its ilk; a premium subscription movie channel with some limited original programming like Torchwood and Spartacus). The show is an example of this slow-burn philosophy; a cable drama show par excellence. It started off very promisingly, with a pilot written by Farhad Safina (Apocalypto) and directed by Gus Van Sant. His auteur approach to the pilot carried through the duration of the first season – closeness of character, extreme silences; the drama punctuated by sharp contrasts in tone and style – highlighting the significant contrasts between the private and public lives of elected officials. It starts off, right off the bat, in a compelling way. When Tom Kane is diagnosed with Dementia with Lewy bodies, the way Van Sant captures Grammer’s reaction is entirely stunning.
We’re seeing a man crumble in front of us – Van Sant’s use of close ups, editing – an immaculate bit of work. But it’s the world in which Kane inhabits where this initial scene is given the most resonance. Kane is not a man to be messed with, and those who get in his way are dealt with in a manner commensurate with Tony Soprano. His Caesarian inner circle speak in hushed tones, but always with authority and guile. I’ve been a fan of Kelsey Grammer for years – for the longest time, Frasier was my favourite show. Those first few seasons were situation comedy at its absolute finest. Some of the most immaculate comedy writing and performing you’ll ever see (look up the astonishing episode ‘The Matchmaker’ (S02E03) – painfully funny) is in that show. The problem Grammer was faced with (I figure) was that he played Frasier for 20 years on that show, and Cheers before it. He did it beautifully. But the public’s perception of one actor can be tainted by such a thing – so when he tries to take up work in film (Down Periscope; 15 Minutes) or go back to network TV (Back to You) it doesn’t seem to gel. He’s an amazing singer, and apparently was good in La Cage Aux Folles on Broadway (missed that one, I so rarely get to the theatre…).
But this show, this role, is a whole new beast for him. The charisma he would need to be the mayor of Chicago is there in the scenes where he faces the media, or the public, but the sense of menace is ever present; especially when dealing with his perceived enemies, or those who displease him – or his wife. The added element of the degenerative brain disorder haunts his performance, and the show. It’s remarkable work for the actor. This show is about to start in Australia on Foxtel channel W, and it’s entirely worthy of your time.
Thankfully a second season is about to air in the States, so while local screens may continue to show faux docos about idiot spokesmodels, the great dramas continue to be produced and screened, almost in defiance, on cable.
Also, the show has continued the stunning modern tradition of brilliant opening credit sequences. A spiritual is sung by Robert Plant, ‘Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down’, as a series of shots of Chicago are seen, with fine chalk outlines superimposed on them. It’s among my favorites… (Rescue Me – ‘Cmon Cmon’ by The Von Bondies cut over rapid fire cuts of New York and NYFD; Six Feet Under, all gothic imagery with Thomas Newman’s theme; the epic animation of Game of Thrones; Boardwalk Empire’s use of ‘Straight Up and Down’ by The Brian Jonestown Massacre over the dreamlike visage of whiskey bottles washing up around Steve Buscemi’s feet; Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’ used as background to microscopic MRI scans for the opening of House … there’s a great list here which doesn’t include Boss, but you can’t win ‘em all.)