Review of Boss ‘Listen’

Samuel Breen

boss 300x225 Review of Boss ListenSPOILERS: Do not read this if you have not seen episode 1, season 1 of ‘Boss’

I can’t remember the last overture that caught my attention so brilliantly. I could feel Gus Van Sant’s limbs pin me down to the settee. This one is worth sticking with.

It opens beautifully and simply. Van Sant directs a steadicam focussed on Kelsey Grammer with a harvester and the US flag blurring behind him. We’re subjected to news no one would ever want to hear, a slow, debilitating disease is taking hold and Grammer is to lose control of his motor neurones akin to Parkinson’s, and that he’s going to lose his mind in the form of a violent dementia peppered with hallucinations.

It is so bad that he will need to sign off a labyrinth of legal documents for his carers to ethically negotiate his final “three maybe five years” alive. And as this death sentence is delivered, Van Sant keeps the camera trembling as the diagnostician’s voice pans left to right. A scene that is augmented by the question planted in the viewer’s mouth: why is he being told this in a barn? It is the personable, intoxicating style of the director at full force.

We are immediately brought in from the cold. A car journey reminds us that this is more classical than the opening scene. Every story starts with a journey. Creative writers class, lesson one. We are quickly told that it’s election season and Kelsey Grammer is playing the Mayor of Chicago Tom Kane. We are introduced to the man as an easy orator. Can you remember a political drama with a politician feeble at public speaking? And who has apparently squandered his marriage. Ditto. He paints the city as one born into sin and paints himself as a divine leader.

There are two threads: one is narcotics the other is the unions. Here is a show ready to offer a cross section of Chicago life. Do-gooder nurse and vicar Emma, the mayor’s daughter, journeying to the heart of drug land but to what end? She’s shrewd, vulnerable and instinctive, a heroine for want of a better word.

She is thrown into a hellish drug den with children and dying pensioners, a room away from deadly, society crippling narcotics. Surely she is not going to be sucked into the city’s inferno? Surely she has turned to god because she has seen humanity’s worst in her father? The other thread created is the Hispanic construction workers – I’m going to opt for the Americanism here, but would probably cave in were you to object. We are shown the bureaucracy they have to stick to and we are taken to a formal dinner.

One of the pleasures of this opening episode is the billboard star who draws a character succinctly and simply. Unlike the catatonic facets of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, Tom Kane is together. He’s tired, withdrawn, alert and fighting fit at every instant. Not that Spacey was bad – he was great – but Grammer’s performance is fresh which is a relief as I have a feeling there might be some overlapping themes. He lines nominee MacCullen up for a fall or so we’re lead to believe as he lines up a slicker Mayor Carcetti character for the Governor’s chair. It’s worth pointing out that The Boss preceded House Of Cards and succeeded The Wire.

My interest piqued when we were given a meta dissection of the Diaspora by the Hispanic union leader, “As time passes they [the Diaspora] begin to understand the value of group strength,” demonstrating the show was keen to distance itself from David Simon’s work. This monologue put paid to the idea that what we’re watching is setting out to imitate The Wire. We can see a more sophisticated understanding of society. One that has a more capitalist framework with the Darwinian types arranged at the top. It’d be my guess that we’re in for a lot of power play across the table from all of these pockets of society as they collide into each other.

The episode closes with black comedy: a pair of human ears block a garbage disposal drain. Satie’s Gnossiennes plays out over the credits. If this is Gus van Sant’s manière de commencement, then bravo!

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