The Starz network gave its drama series "Boss" a huge vote of confidence last year when it gave a second season renewal weeks before a single episode of the first season had aired. Then, this past January, star Kelsey Grammer beat out Bryan Cranston ("Breaking Bad") and Steve Buscemi ("Boardwalk Empire"), Damian Lewis ("Homeland") and Jeremy Irons ("The Borgias") and won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama Series for his portrayal of Chicago Mayor Tom Kane. Not a bad start for a new entry on a pay cable network with a lead actor less known for drama than for playing the same sitcom character for 20 years (Frasier Crane on "Cheers" and "Frasier"), right?
As the second season begins tonight, how does series creator Farhad Safinia feel about the great expectations for the show? How does he see some elements of comedy in the show? And is there a distinction between good and bad with the multitude of complicated characters in the world of "Boss?" Our Jim Halterman asked Safinia that and more during a sit-down during the recent TCA Summer Press Tour.
Jim Halterman: What did you learn from season one that helped you shape season two?
Farhad Safinia: I talked about it with Dee [Johnson, Executive Producer] in particular in this way where I said, 'Kane is sort of the sun of the solar system around whom revolve all of these other planets.' I think it's important not to lose sense of that. A lot of television shows of this scope follow multiple storylines in a more character-based way than we do. We have a lot of characters, but eventually all roads lead back to Kane in our show. And that's deliberate. It's by design. I think we are also playing to an incredible strength, not to say that the other actors aren't doing tremendous work because they really are, and I think across the board the performances in this show have been monumental. But in Kelsey in this role with the age he's in, the time, the experience he's had, the skill level he is bringing, we are on to something seriously special. So in that sense we knew we had to continue that.
The other thing that I would also say is that I think the sort of continuing to try to marry an Elizabethan type of pot boiler... we've got our level elements like the sex, and the violence, and the backstabbing, and the machinations and the plotting. You know, the kinds of things that make great theater with ideas about modern day politics dashed in. I think that's something that I really wanted to try and keep going. Because I think it's unusual, I think it takes a moment to get used to. I think people are okay seeing that kind of stuff in something like 'Game of Thrones' for instance, or something historical where they comfortably shunt it and put it into a context that's easy for them to sort of digest. Whereas if you put it in a modern context when you are saying an Elizabethan backstabbing can also occur in the halls of City Hall in Chicago, they go, "Oh really? Does that really happen? Is it really like that?" And I think you should just take a sit back, and just go for the ride, and see overall what impression the show leaves with you. That's the idea behind trying to mash those two things together, real politics with really old-fashioned story telling.
JH: What does Kelsey's Golden Globe mean for the show? Does it legitimize the show or just give it a little extra press?
FS: It was actually here in this hotel [The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills] where it happened. I'm very grateful for it, very grateful for it. First of all because I think he deserved it. So let's just get that straight. It's not just that I'm thanking the Hollywood Foreign Press, but having done such a benevolent thing. I actually think Kelsey is amazing in the show. But I think what they did, what the Foreign Press did in terms of putting us up there, in today's marketplace is beyond a value. You can't really say that you attached some kind of tangible value to it. It's more than that.
Chris Albrecht, who runs our network, said that when he started doing this kind of original programming at HBO there were four cable networks. Today there are 40. And when you look at that in the plot of programming, original programming and good original programming that is available, the average viewer doesn't have time to just watch eight great shows a week. You just can't do it. So in that sense getting a Golden Globe nomination, getting singled out, and then winning with Kelsey has someone saying, 'Yeah, you really should pay attention to this one because it's doing something even a little bit more than every other great program that's out there.' So that way I think it's been really important to us.
JH: And with most shows that tackle subject matter like yours you kind of expect to see the line between good and evil to be very clear and very divided.
FS: I know. Why?
JH: I'm guessing that's your intention, right? You don't want to make it clear for one thing and that line can also be very thin.
FS: I think there's some context in which that can be fun. I think when you go to see Spiderman you know who you are rooting for. Even with Batman, which is a lot darker and lot more grey, you still know you are rooting for Batman. Although I think I was rooting for Heath Ledger in the second Batman, but regardless.
JH: Oh, yeah! I was, too!
FS: But I think the thing is why not test those boundaries a little bit? I have heard that, by the way, as a comment and sometimes the criticism of a show, which I hear a lot of people say that this is fascinating, that there are no likable characters. And I think, 'Well why on earth would you want to always have a likable character?' I love rooting for the bad guy. I love rooting for the bad guy because in real life, I hope it's not like that, but when I'm turning my brain off and I want to just be entertained, I love seeing someone get away with the absolute worst possible thing in the world. It's a pure piece of escapism. Even the means of providing that escapism, questions arise as to, 'Is it really like this? Are people truly that deprived? Are they really engaged in such degrees of corruption in order to achieve politic ends?' I think that's a bonus added aside. I don't think it's the main thrust of the show. The thrust of the show is to explore some pretty questionable people doing some pretty questionable things. You know, and it's been part of our entertainment for centuries.
JH: In the last ten years or so, we've had the term 'antihero' get thrown around a lot. Shows like 'The Sopranos' or 'Dexter' where you have these lead characters doing awful things. Do you think that's given a show like yours license to not have that nice character at the core?
FS: Absolutely. There is a precursor to it. We are not inventing the wheel at all. You are absolutely right about that. I think there is a little bit of a fascination with that right now but I think if you look closely even those shows have got characters who want to do good and sort of fall shy. Great tragedies are always about aspiring to something good and then just quite not getting there. And I think in our show you see that too. You see even our worst characters aspiring to something better. And there's a note of hope, for instance, that floats to the very end of season one where the most jaded political operative, Ezra Stone (played by Martin Donovan) says something that I hope is really hopeful in terms of what we should be like with our politics and what way the insiders need to take responsibility for their behavior. That just because it's easy to sink to the bottom doesn't mean that you should sink to the bottom.
JH: Which takes me to what would you say is the overlying theme for season two?
FS: I think usually with this show you try to cram a lot in.
JH: Maybe the main one, then.
FS: I think there's a personal theme that about trying to piece together a semblance of human self in Kane's case. I think the story we start off with in season one [is] we see a man who is at the pinnacle of power, but in order to get there the backstory, which we haven't seen, is that he has to turn himself into a monster in order to be where he is. Once he realizes he hasn't got long left [to live], he's essentially on a journey trying to find if he can even try to reconstitute himself as a fully realized person which includes having genuine feelings of trust, empathy, love and so on. And to try and find some of those things is interesting for this guy given the world that he's created around himself. So that's the theme is to attempt to try to find whether he can build himself back up again to being a fully realized human being.
JH: In the first scene of the second season Kane's doctor basically says, 'Your best days are behind you.' That's such a big statement because it's not just about his health.
FS: Seriously, isn't that the case for all of us though?
JH: I do love Tom and Meredith and that little crazy dysfunctional family but talk to me about the family element of the show. That marriage is such a mess.
FS: It is. I think the thing is there's almost a comedy element to it for me, to be honest with you. I hope that some people see it and can laugh at it because if you spent that long fucking it up and you are trying to put it back together again in such a pathetic way almost, it's almost comedic. It's almost as though you can't go back and apologize for some of the things that are just so, so badly done. So wrong to such an extent. But there is something also admirable about putting yourself out there. So I think you will see Kane... it won't just be funny hopefully. You'll definitely see him struggle with the idea that he wants to reconnect particularly with those people. He can't trust one of them at all; his wife, and the other one I don't know whether that journey is even possible. I don't even think he can, but he's going to try.
So that's really all I want to say, and I'll tell you why. Because there are some real turns and twists in the family plot line particularly, some things you will not see coming hopefully. And so I don't want to give them away. But they are, just as in the political storytelling track, there's some genuine shocks to come on this personal story track as well.
JH: Without spoiling anything, will there be an upside to Ella being in prison? Will it help her in some odd way?
FS: Yeah, kind of. There are a couple of major shocks coming. And in that sense her having had to go to that depth, are the reasons why some of those become apparent.
JH: Last season you had eight episodes and this year you have ten. Was ten enough or would you have even liked to have a couple more?
FS: No. I think it's good. I think it's a good number. I just hope that we get to keep going. I hope we have the right number of seasons. I hope we find an audience for it. We plot the show very much like a movie. So if you watch the first season we plotted it like a movie. There's a beginning, a middle, and end to the body of the season as a whole. The second season is the same. I think we will continue to do that. I think there is a gratification in that where you are not just tuning in to see what's on 'Boss' this week, but you are watching a long story develop over ten hours, which has clear plots at the beginning that pay off at the end. It's a very much a filming structure, which is something that I would like to continue to do. And ten episodes work for that very well.
"Boss" airs Fridays at 9:00/8:00c on Starz.