Some – understandably – claim that Gus Van Sant has lost his touch in recent years. His efforts since 2009’s Milk haven’t exactly endeared him to critics. His 2011 romantic cancer drama Restless received a very negative reception, and this year’s Promised Land hasn’t exactly set the world alight. But amongst all this, Gus has made Boss, a superb, adult, intelligent political drama series.
Boss aired on American premium cable channel Starz. A lot of content from Starz that British audiences see are international – quite often UK – co-productions, such as Camelot, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Da Vinci’s Demons and The White Queen (the latter three all co-produced with the BBC). But here we have a piece of all-American joy. Boss is a home-grown, highly intelligent piece of filmmaking. And yes, it is filmmaking. In this day and age, a lot of the best cinema can be found on the small screen. Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes and now Gus Van Sant have all been tempted to the small screen, recognising that it is where one can develop a cinematic concept on a much broader canvas than the normal two hour film would provide.
American and British audiences went mad over The West Wing, the political drama to end all political dramas. Boss is not The West Wing. I don’t think the show itself would like to be described as similar. Compared to Boss, The West Wing was as warm an episode of Downton Abbey. Boss is tough stuff. It has a strong, visceral bite to it that is overwhelmingly compelling.
Kelsey Grammer gives a fine and considered performance as our lead, Chicago Mayor Kane, and the way he portrays his character’s diagnosis with degenerative illness is exceptionally good. The news Kane has an illness is divulged within seconds of the series opening. This provides the drama with a springboard for emotion and narrative meat but never feels gratuitous or sentimentalised.
From an aesthetics perspective, Boss looks incredible. Shot in sleek, slick digital high definition with the Arri Alexa camera, the series looks wonderfully cinematic and as visually hypnotic as it is narratively compelling.
Sadly, the series has been cancelled in the United States (after its second season), but for now, savour the strength and intellect of this fascinating and surprising first season. It may be over sooner than expected, but my goodness, it’s still worth it for the ride.
Boss is released on DVD by Lionsgate from 10 June.