by Karl J. Paloucek
Nothing really intrigues like politics, does it? Especially if you live in Chicago, where real-life political intrigue is layered especially thick and comes straight from the “You can’t make this stuff up” files. Maybe you can’t, but Gus Van Sant and Farhad Safinia are giving it a go anyway with their ambitious and highly anticipated series Boss premiering on Starz next Friday, Oct. 21 at 10pm ET/PT.
Boss centers on incumbent Chicago mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer), a potent and charismatic leader whose administration has been a success with the people, but whose achievements are marked with the stain of deception, immorality and betrayal. His popularity and effectiveness have been unparalleled by any mayor in recent memory, but as such, there’s nowhere to go for Kane but down, and there are a host of assailants — not least of which is a degenerative brain disorder with which he finds himself afflicted — to help him on his way.
One of the thorns in Kane’s side is played by Troy Garity. Garity’s character, Sam Miller, is a Chicago Sentinel reporter whose work on a deep-background piece on the mayor begins to stir up some unpleasant truths, leading to a grand moral conflict that’s only one tiny corner of the elaborate web that Kane has constructed in his quest to stay in power. It’s a role that Garity has come to love over the course of shooting this first season, which he told me about when I sat down with him on set during the shooting of Episode 7.
“It’s fun to be the rabble-rouser, the truth-seeker — the muckraker,” Garity says of his character in Boss. “He’s emotional. He’s not confined to his suit, or public office. He has a real moral standard, which he’s trying to live by — the importance of real journalism.”
Of course, maintaining principles can come at a high price — which almost by definition means that they can be bought. “As [Miller] begins to push more and more buttons, everything that he believed in becomes open for compromise,” Garity continues. “I think that’s interesting, because everybody, in life, starts off with some idealized version of who they are and where they’re going to go, and along our individual paths, we must meet compromise. And do we choose self-preservation? Do we choose preservation of the whole? How do we navigate those waters?”
While the series does play out in Chicago, where scandalous stories of selling out and opportunism are rife for the picking, Boss doesn’t take its cues from the headlines. It’s more about the tenor, the flavor of corruption engendered by an environment dominated by an entrenched candidate’s administration and his seemingly unseatable party. But
it’s more than that, Garity insists. “A big part of the show is about power structures, and how some of these power structures operate and are conducted,” he offers. “The mayor has his political machine. That is his power structure — it’s how he operates his kingdom. The people are another power structure. And another power structure is the media and our newspaper, and our control of public opinion and revealing the truth. My character really believes that you need true, verified, fact-checked journalism in order for a democratic society to function. … That it’s necessary, for a society to thrive, to keep politicians honest, to inform the public. That’s my character’s mission so far.”
At its heart, Boss is a contemporary take on the game of power as portrayed in stories that are centuries old — because as long as power is potentially available and sought after, it will entice and it will corrupt, as it necessarily does. “In older societies, they have fables and mythological stories that you hear from Europe, or Africa, or Russia,” Garity suggests. “In Shakespeare. There are these older tales that become morality plays that are loosely based on or inspired by actual events. … What I think Farhad has done here is really create sort of an American mythological morality tale based in politics. The country’s old enough now to understand the joy and scandal, treachery and complexity of politics, civics and family. We’ve had enough characters, now, in our country, that have been so much larger than life that we’re able to think back on them in sort of metaphorical ways, which, maybe 50 years ago, we couldn’t.
“In a way, we use the mafia as sort of this mythological construct for society,” Garity continues. “Everyone sort of rationalizes what that means morally. Capitalism — all of these things you can project onto the mafia. And The Sopranos sort of did that in their own way. This is a political version, but I find it much more complex — especially how [series creator Safinia] plays all the different pawns off of each other. It’s good.”