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After nearly losing his career, his family and his mind, Mayor Tom Kane’s (Kelsey Grammer) grip on Chicago is as powerful as ever. With high doses of medication, he’s able to beat back the physical symptoms of his debilitating brain disease, but it comes at a cost. Kane is left with intense and uncontrollable neurological side effects. Despite the delusions, Kane breaks ground on the O’Hare Airport expansion and looks toward his next endeavor – protecting and repairing his legacy. With the astute counsel of new aides Mona Fredricks (Sanaa Lathan) and Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff), he plans to remove and rebuild a long forgotten housing project, now home to gang activity and rampant corruption. Committed to his unorthodox agenda, Kane prepares to cut out the cancers within the political machine he helped build. Fully aware of Kane’s illness, his wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen) finds herself questioning who holds the key to preserving her position of power, while their daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware), the product of their loveless, political marriage, battles her own destructive demons. Without his longtime advisors Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) and Kitty O’Neil (Kathleen Robertson), and his political protégé Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner), the odds continue to stack against him. As corrupt heads roll and his list of enemies grows, Kane's virtuous actions begin to erode the very foundation of power he's worked a lifetime to build. In order to maintain it, Kane must govern as he always has—ruthlessly. (From Starz’ official synopsis)

Boss: Season One
The buzz on the Starz Channel original series Boss all but entirely escaped me as a non-cable-TV-having type. I was aware that Kelsey Grammer was in a well-received new drama, but that was about it. It’s probably because Starz’ other ‘hit’ series, Spartacus, takes up a whole lot of attention with its graphic violence and sexual content. Boss also comes from a relatively untested creator/writer/show runner named Farhad Safinia and outside of Grammer, whose star has certainly faded over the last decade, there wasn’t a whole lot of notable star power behind the series.

Boss explores the ins and outs of mayoral duty through a consistently depressing point of view, and there’s an awful lot going on per episode. The narrative often dips into relatively inconsequential subplots and this blurs the story focus quite a bit, specifically considering the season’s rather brief eight-episode structure. It can all be a little overwhelming, but doesn’t really damage the experience as much as the show’s tone, which regularly implies such utter seriousness that it’s hard not to giggle a bit. This extends to both the writing and visual tones. The show’s first episode is directed by none other than arthouse darling Gus Van Sant (also acting executive producer), who appropriately sets the show’s wavy-cam, cinéma vérité style. Other episode directors, which include Breaking Bad and Treme director Jim McKay, Mario Van Peebles and award-winning documentary film producer Jean de Segonzac, continue this realer than real, close-up heavy method. Peebles’ episodes wear the arthouse look the best, as he tends to skew a bit more glamorously Avant-garde. After a couple of episodes Safinia and his co-writers finally verify that they aren’t actually as concerned with realism as they initially appear, and that its actually okay to have a little fun with the program. This ends up setting the show’s strong sense of style as its most appealing aspect. The staff also gets credit for embracing the lack of normal censorship on the Starz network. Within the first episode we are appropriately barraged with naughty language and a relatively raunchy sex scene.

Boss: Season One
There’s no way to get around comparing Boss to Breaking Bad. Both shows are built around a middle-aged leading male who discovers he has come down with a medical condition that will kill him. Other similarities include a chess game approach to dirty politics (a game with far fewer casualties than the drug lord game) and drug-dealing/drug-addict subplots. The extent to which these shows are built around these leads is especially comparable, as are the snarling performances of Kelsey Grammer and Bryan Cranston. The comparison doesn’t work in Boss’ favour, but mark it as a bit of an anti- West Wing, which is, I suppose, certainly commendable, regardless of final product (even if Safinia and his directors constantly borrows Aaron Sorkin’s patented West Wing steady-cam/walk and talk). The Grammer/Cranston comparison is the one that really hurts, especially in terms of rooting for the bad guy. Cranston’s Walter White remains a likeable character despite his spiral into villainy, while Grammer’s Tom Kane is introduced as a villain, and does nothing throughout the season to make him appear as anything more than a petulant child, which isn’t particularly charming. But even without it I’d probably find Grammer’s performance a lot funnier than intended. Every time he starts shouting f-bombs the tone takes a turn away from the melodramatic and into the hilarious. Some of this, of course, comes out of the baggage Grammer brings to any role after portraying Dr. Frasier Crane for something like two decades, but just as much responsibility lies on the actor’s shoulders. He should be capable of more than alternating between scowling and smiling.

This middle-ground-less performance extends to some other members the cast, who pretty much treats the material like stage-read Shakespeare (which, according to the special features on this disc, was kind of the point), but on average the word on acting seems to be less is more. Often the intended comedy, which is rare, falls flat as well, which only muddies the quality further. However, once the acting tone is appropriately established, it’s not too difficult to acclimate oneself with its occasionally goofy extremes. The bigger issue here is that most of the supporting characters are depressingly, numbingly uninteresting, and that their rather simplified moral shortcomings are largely their only defining characteristics. This is extra sad because Martin Donovan and Connie Nielsen are usually such dependable bit-part players. I found the only character outside of Mayor Kane that garners any charm is Sam Mille, the investigative journalist played by Troy Garity, who works his way through frustrating secrecy with an amusing sense of sarcasm. I’d prefer to watch the show largely from his point of view instead, even if the investigative journalist angle is a more overused concept than an evil mayor.

Boss: Season One

Video


Boss is shot using the Arri Alexa digital HD system and this 1080p, 1.78:1 Blu-ray transfer does the process great justice, better so (I assume) than the compressed, 1080i television airings. Gus Van Sant’s early set visual concepts play well with the format, especially in terms of general clarity and organic, documentary-like camera movement. Backgrounds are often left in soft focus for the sake of image depth, but their image complexity isn’t entirely washed-out and the lack of grain helps maintain the realer-than-real style. Close-up and middle ground detail, specifically those ridiculously studious facial close-ups, are swimming in texture and fine detail without any sizable artefacts. It’s occasionally difficult to not reach out towards the set in an effort to feel Grammer’s spectacular crow’s feet. The series colour schemes are mostly natural, but tend to lean towards desaturated elements, including a lot of yellow-brown and green bases. Sometimes warmer hues, especially reds, bleed a bit or feature a bit of green noise and banding effects, but overall digital compression is negligible. The production embraces the soft blend abilities of the digital cameras, which does wonders for show’s realistic, largely source-lit style. This leaves contrast levels a bit dull, but the details and depth aren’t damaged in the process and the important black levels are plenty rich.

Audio


Boss comes to Blu-ray with an uncompressed, better than aired TV can manage, but largely unnecessary DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. This is a very loud track considering the show’s relatively stoic aural nature, but these abnormal and pointed volume levels don’t hurt anything and feature basically nothing in the way of distortion. Vocal effects are warm and realistic, and feature plenty of ambient enhancement that deepen the overall effect of the track. There are a couple of odd directional bleeds in the dialogue, but nothing particularly dumbfounding. When expressive sound effects do come into play there is an appropriate amount of immersive, multi-channel involvement, but not enough to really require anything more than a 2.0 surround soundtrack, let alone an additional two rear channels. The series’ music varies from melodic themes to eerie ambience throughout. This sounds the most impressive when it’s in ambient mode, where it builds dramatically into something crisp and loud, and tends to swirl a bit throughout the side and rear channels. The sound design crew loses a few points for utilizing an analogue tape rewind sound while a character is rewinding a DVD, but overall, this DTS-HD track serves the series well.

Boss: Season One

Extras


This two-disc set isn’t exactly overflowing with supplemental material, but there are a few choice cuts. These start on disc one with a single episode (the first episode, Listen) commentary track featuring creator/writer Farhad Safinia and cinematographer Kasper Tuxen. Safinia mostly runs the track, covering the production/writing process from a largely episode-centric point of view, but Tuxen’s presence pushes a lot of the discussion toward technical aspects as well, as Safinia takes effort to include him. The discussion is pretty dry, but should give fans at least some of the information they crave. Disc two features another single episode commentary (the final episode, Choose) this time with Safinia and executive producer/writer Richard Levine, which generally follows the first track’s tone and pace. I suppose there’s a little more funny banter between Safinia and Levine, but not quite enough. Disc two also features The Mayor and His Maker (16:40, HD), a two-man roundtable featuring Grammer and Safinia discussing the show, from inception, to influences, concepts, and the underlying subtexts of the Tom Kane character.

Boss: Season One

Overall


Boss is a stylish series, but it has very little going for it outside of nice, natural imagery and an arguably strong performance from Kelsey Grammer. The final three episodes jettison some of the unnecessary plot-threads and kick the story into gear a bit, but there’s still the matter of five episodes worth of slog holding things back. In the end, it’s difficult to gather any real interest in future seasons. This Blu-ray collection features strong 1080p transfers and crisp (if not underwhelming) DTS-HD MA soundtracks, along with a pair of informative (if not tonally dry) commentary tracks and an extended star and creator interview.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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