Sep 27, 2012



I’m surprised to find myself regularly watching Boss, a Friday drama on Starz, with Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago. It’s full of the kind of unrelenting darkness and disease I’ve just protested, but the world of city, national, and international politics intrigues me almost as much as it depresses and enrages me. I don’t know if Boss presents that world with much accuracy, but events and episodes usually seem all too plausible. Also, Grammer’s portrayal of Mayor Tom Kane gains some sympathy because of his rare disease with its terrible prognosis.

If Tom Kane (as in Cain and Abel?) is a walking definition of a Machiavellian leader, he is nevertheless a brilliant and fascinating human, as he twists himself and others into abnormal shapes in his attempt at political and biological survival. In the process he aims for goals that are at least not bad and might be worthwhile or even noble.

It’s worth noting that most scenes, sordid as they may be, occur in well-lit rooms or outdoor daylight. The plot and its scenes do not dawdle or amble; they almost trot along. The dialogue is crisp and salty; it’s the way people ought to talk when they think they’re being interesting.

The Checker Players (detail), George Caleb Bingham, American (1811-79),  Detroit Institute of Art
Is it possible that it’s characters and situations like these that preserve Chicago—and this country—and move it along, or at least allow it to move itself along? But as I say that, I remember that the trial of Detroit’s former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, has begun. If the accusations against him are true, he’s right there with Tom Kane, in a pit of self-serving, adolescent behaviors. If they have any self-control, they spend it on narcissistic, bullying, survivalist machinations.
GM Headquarters, Detroit

HOMELAND  (Season Two begins September 30 on Showtime)

If I ever take time to think it through, I'll probably say Homeland is the richest, most honestly complex, and most gripping TV viewing experience I've ever had. It's better than most movies on similar subject matter--politics, war, and political intelligence--largely because the primary focus is always on the individual human characters, all of whom are caught in dilemmas bigger and deadlier than their own flaws and mistakes. Maybe King Lear was wrong when he said, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” but each of the major characters in the first season of Homeland could legitimately make that claim.

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis are the two lead actors, but there are at least four main characters. Lewis is Nicholas Brody, an Iraq War vet and POW, who has finally returned to the U.S. and might be a spy. Morena Baccarin is Jessica, his knockout wife—whose sensual beauty plays second fiddle to her plight as Brody’s wife. Claire Danes is Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer, and Mandy Potemkin is her mentor and former boss. The Brody daughter, Dana, is becoming more important as the story evolves, and Morgan Saylor plays her convincingly.

Each is a multifaceted character with a legitimate claim for our sympathy as well as our criticism. Ditto that for governments, nations, cultures. How is an intelligent human, more well-intentioned than not, supposed to know what’s true and right in the midst of the vast puzzle of political, military, domestic, romantic and moral machinery?

Backyard Feral Cat

Like Boss, the episodes move right along, in various settings, usually in daylight. It’s easy to stay interested. Unlike Boss, however, it’s also easy to like each of the main characters, to see how each wakes up in a life that’s over his or her head, and is quite possibly doing the best he or she can. It’s not very good, but it’s probably better than we would fare in those circumstances. 


Stickup Artist said...

2 things I avoid—TV and glossy women's magazines. I'm just not strong enough not to get sucked in! So, I don't know anything about this topic nor have I seen these shows and doubt I ever will. But you do make them sound compelling...

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, I hear you about addiction. I watch too much. I don't even do a good a guilt trip on myself these days because the technology is so much better (and I have a flat screen).

Glossy mags, not so much. I subscribe to none now, having dropped Sports Illustrated and Newsweek years ago--just too easy to get that news more entertainingly on the boob tube. I subscribe to a few literary magazines--maybe that will get me into heaven in spite of my TV addiction??

Also, in addition to technology, some of these TV shows simply are better than TV ever was back in the day. Maybe it all started with Hill Street Blues, but today's handful of high-quality TV dramas are now as good as movies that do similar subjects. Ditto the next tier down, such as The Good Wife. IMHO.

I think there might still be more grammatical errors on TV than in movies . . . :) But seriously, it's ridiculous--you get shows where a character with all kinds of hotshot education makes errors in the basics. That's not just me being anal, that's bad "professional" writing.

Then there's Big Bang Theory, which NEVER makes mistakes. Those people will all go to heaven.

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