“A kid like you doesn’t get a job like this unless he’s fucking somebody. Hard. In any sense of the word,” Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer), sounding like Christian Grey of the Fifty Shades Thereof, tells a young campaign aide at the beginning and a new and improved season of Starz’s Boss. Where the last season of the show, which follows Kane as he battles a degenerative neurological condition he’s trying to keep secret even as he tries to push forward an expansion of O’Hare Airport and manage his daughter, a heroin addict, as well as a variety of political counterparts and rivals, this season introduces a series of up-and-coming scrappers in addition to the people who already count among Chicago’s powerful. Their ambition, and the stories of how they move closer to Kane’s orbit, makes Boss more interesting this season, particularly as it locks down some of the sillier tendencies that marked its first year and moves into a fight over the fate of a major Chicago housing project.
One of the things that has always distinguished Boss, and that remains the same this season, has been its sense of grandeur, manifested particularly in its dialogue. Unlike Deadwood, which used a mixture of setting-appropriate argot and contemporary profanity to create a vernacular that brought viewers back in time while making sure cussing retained its force, the language and cadence of Boss’s characters is deliberately at odds with its setting in modern-day Chicago. Mayor Kane declares in press conferences about contracts for new housing projects that “Avarice will not be tolerated.” His police chief, leading the investigation into who shoots Kane’s wife (Connie Nielsen) at a public event, tells Kane that, though they were once enemies, “I repent.”
Sometimes, that portentousness seems misapplied. “I hate the Oxford comma. I assume you know what that means,” Kane growls at his new aide, Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff, whose malevolence seems better-placed here than it ever did on Glee). “Mental note. I’m indifferent myself, but you won’t see it again,” Ian tells him with a studied blandness. But the archness can be effective, as when Kane muses, “She was more of a my will than thy will kind of person,” to the priest he’s asked to be available if Meredith should need last rites.
And this season, the show has set up a competition around Kane that has heft to match the show’s tone. Rather than simply replacing fembot Kitty O’Neill (Kathleen Robertson) with Todd, Kane hires Mona Fredricks (Sanaa Lathan), a political operator from the South Side of Chicago after she outmaneuvers him in a fight about the future of Lennox Gardens, a housing project standing in for the former Cabrini Green development. While Ian represents established Chicago interests, Mona challenges Kane to consider upping the city’s Section Eight-eligible housing stock and to go with someone other than the entrenched contractor who’s long counted on getting work from the city without having to bid for it. A collision between a black aide and a white one may be a little obvious, but it’s uneasy to see how Kane sides with Mona as a matter of whim and frustration, to realize that change can succeed or fail on a mood rather than on reason.
Another improvement this season is Boss’s treatment of sex. In the first season, the show occasionally felt as if was trying to meet some sort of Starz-imposed quota with lingering nipple shots and scenes of Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner), a bright young political candidate, boffing Kitty, who also turned out to be his mistress, in hotel lobbies because he apparently got off on the prospect of getting caught. This time around, there are lingering looks, but the show has some restraints. When Zajac seduces a young, eager campaign aide, the sequence feels more like a comment on his sexual entitlement and lack of discipline than it does an attempt to check a box. And Boss is one of several shows on the fall schedule to take an adult approach to an unwanted pregnancy subplot, eschewing the timid Magical Miscarriages or not-in-character decisions to keep a baby that so much of pop culture defaults to in order to avoid controversy. These approaches, and the attention given to little details like Kane bringing flowers to his daughter Emma’s childhood bedroom to welcome her home from jail make the characters in Boss feel a bit more like people than they did the previous season.
Boss still doesn’t quite hang together for me, which is too bad given how much I want to like it. The show’s devotion to drawing drama from the minutiae of politics, its ability to make a city council vote exciting, and its visual ambition, whether in its gorgeous graphic design or Kane’s visions of a ghostly Meredith or a lizard that stalks him from the desert into his office, are all precisely my speed. But in its attempts to emulate the shows that ushered in the golden age of television, Boss seems to have forgotten to have fun. There’s none of the glee of Peggy Olson hunting down a high, or the humor of Omar in the courtroom. Tom Kane is fighting awfully hard for his kingdom. I just think I’d enjoy it more if he was too.