Following, some thoughts on another very busy weekend of summer TV. (At this point, I'm almost looking forward to the fall season starting, so I can catch my breath.)
CHI-TOWN CHICANERY: Corruption, mendacity, a thick smog of cynicism. Ain't we got fun? And so the audaciously downbeat political drama Boss returns to Starz (Friday, 9/8c), anchored and dominated yet again by Kelsey Grammer's tremendous performance as Chicago mayor (aka "boss" man) Tom Kane. A self-righteous bastard and unrepentant bully, this Machiavellian manipulator is notorious for "sacrificing that which is most precious for his political survival" (including sending his own daughter to prison and having his once-trusted turncoat adviser killed). Juggling more baggage than O'Hare during a blizzard, Kane is also beset by demons, manifesting as visions and hallucinations and ghosts, all symptoms of a debilitating brain disease — or maybe it's just good old guilt.
"Your best days are behind you," Kane is told early on as the second season resumes. Which isn't entirely true. A year ago, Boss felt awfully heavy-handed to me, an impression reinforced by seemingly endless gasbaggy soliloquies, but it has sharpened this season (judging from the first five episodes) into a bolder, though still hardly subtle, urban melodrama of moral, political and sexual chicanery. Grammer is as strong as ever — which almost pains me to say, after his classless poor-me performance this week on The Tonight Show, when he suggested his regrettable Emmy snub was due to his political leanings.
(Sidebar: Dude, hardly anyone even watched your show last year. That's why you were passed over, plus the fact that as good as you were, the show left a lot to be desired, and if it weren't for Starz's tendency to renew shows before they even premiere, you might not even have gotten this second season. Plus, you were hardly alone: Timothy Olyphant, the star of the superior drama Justified, also got left out, so get over yourself and stop playing the victim card.)
Back to Boss, where things get more interesting (in between the various hauntings) as Mayor Kane attempts to find redemption on a number of fronts: at home, where his wife (the terrific Connie Nielsen) and estranged daughter Emma (Hannah Ware, a pallid weak link) can barely stand to share a dinner table with him; and more compellingly, with the city at large, where his efforts at urban redevelopment of a run-down housing project seem unusually selfless — he certainly impresses the alluring and earnest political operative (Sanaa Lathan) whom he lures into his inner circle. But just when you think he might for once be on the side of the angels, he crosses a line so intrusive and icky that you can't help but recoil.
"Life offers nothing so precious as a second chance," says Kane as he makes an especially ruthless power play (observed by a fawning but calculating new aide, well played by Jonathan Groff). Boss has earned that second chance, and while it will never be what you might call a joy ride, the journey is considerably more absorbing now.
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MAKE LOVE AND WAR: That could be the motto of Cinemax's explosively diverting action extravaganza Strike Back (Friday, 10/9c), which also benefits from a stronger through-line in its second season — or third, if you count an earlier incarnation that aired in the U.K. only — as the terrorist-battling heroes of the clandestine Section 20 go on a season-long international pursuit (24-style) of a bundle of deadly nuclear triggers that passes like a Frisbee from one evil cabal to another. There's a tough new female (the appropriately intimidating and dour Rhona Mitra) in charge of Section 20, but it's the absurdly over-the-top machismo of countless firefights and explosions and high-body-count carnage that makes Strike Back such a cheese-tastic guilty pleasure. That plus the tendency of American soldier-of-misfortune Damien Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) to graphically shag any exotic temptress in his path between bloody engagements, which often involve capture and torture and reckless rescue capers.
When ordered before a mission to "make it cold and quick," Scott's steadfast partner, British Sgt. Michael Stonebridge (square-jawed Philip Winchester) replies, "Is there any other way?" The camaraderie of the irrepressible Scott and his no-nonsense "buddy" Stonebridge, pulling each other out of death-defying scrapes as things go boom, is likened by the exasperated Mitra to a Laurel and Hardy routine, and it's true that each episode has an element of "another fine mess" in its DNA. "Ever heard of the Alamo?" Scott quips before plunging into another impossible situation. But as a notorious terrorist observes during a particularly harrowing standoff, "They are not men, they are weapons." Dressed to kill, to be sure, though never as nattily, cleverly or memorably as the immortal James Bond. But in between movies, these guys will do.
UNPOLISHED COPPER: Crime is timeless, and the streets are always mean. For a cop working the rough-and-tumble world of Civil War-era New York City in Copper (Sunday, 10/9c), there's no such thing as going by the book. That's because there is no book yet, which often makes it hard to distinguish the enforcers from the thugs.
"You want a fair fight, you're talkin' to the wrong fella," says the scrappy, scruffy lead "copper" Kevin Corcoran (a stubbornly bland Tom Weston-Jones) as he threatens one of his targets with torture. Later, the Irish immigrant war vet-turned-detective puts his gun to the head of a man with critical info, warning: "You can talk or you can pray." This is some rough justice, which threatens to cross the line into vigilante murder.
Copper, from the distinguished auspices of Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street), is BBC America's first original production, and it doesn't lack in ambition. It's in the stilted, stiff execution where things fall apart. Like AMC's even more tedious Hell on Wheels, capturing a turbulent era and a squalid setting with studiously detailed period grit isn't enough. While the story revels in bone-crunching brutality on either side of the law, the impact is muffled by cardboard characterizations, wooden acting and clichéd plotting.
Corcoran and his cronies, including a noble African-American doctor who offers homegrown forensic advice on the sly, attempt to bridge the class divide between the immigrant slums of Five Points and the high-society hypocrisy of Fifth Avenue. The coppers' shoot-first credo can be shocking, but the civics lesson, like the acting and (so far) the writing, mostly falls flat. I'll keep an eye on this one in hopes that it will improve — if memory serves, I didn't succumb to Deadwood's profane charms until about midway through the first season — but at first look, this is barely worthy of lining Al Swearengen's spittoon.
SO LONG, FAREWELL: TNT's Falling Skies wraps its second season Sunday (9/8c) feeling like an almost entirely different show from a year ago. The tension in this alien-invasion thriller is greater, the stakes are higher, the relationships go deeper, all of which makes the losses and setbacks hit harder. And the triumphs, such as they are, feel sweeter. The conflicts between humans are at least as harrowing as those between the survivors and the invaders — and that's never been more true than in the battle of wills that escalates in the finale between the feisty members of the 2nd Mass regiment and the military command in the new government based in underground Charleston, which refuses to believe the rebel Skitters could ever be trusted allies.
Will Tom Mason (Noah Wyle, rarely better) be allowed to put what I call "Operation Overlord" into motion and take down the spindly creature who's bedeviled him since last season's cliffhanger? Let's just say this climax isn't skimping on action, with some nifty and scary twists setting up what promises to be another nail-biting season next summer.
Meanwhile, USA Network's merrily preposterous popcorn-miniseries of a D.C. soap Political Animals finishes its crazily addictive six-episode run Sunday (10/9c) with no clear indication if there will be a follow-through next year or any year. Let's hope there is, because I haven't yet had my fill of Sigourney Weaver as the principled secretary of state who would be president, a divorced Hillary with great backbone but shockingly dowdy fashion sense; of James Wolk and Sebastian Stan as her polar-opposite twin sons, both of whom find ways of disappointing her in profound ways; of Carla Gugino (better than her material) as another fantasy version of a journalist who gets way too close to her sources but can't quite control where the story goes next; and especially of Ellen Burstyn as Weaver's brash and boozy onetime showgirl mama, a granny with gumption and spirit (not to mention spirits) who'd do anything for her messed-up brood. Maybe even give up drink for a while.
The story takes multiple garish hairpin turns, including one on such a scale that the petty (though entertaining) problems of this wacky family begin to pale — and not for the first time you may begin to question your allegiance to a show with so little regard for probability. But what the heck. An election-year summer seems as good a time as any for a guilty-pleasure West Wing filtered through a Dynasty sensibility, and while it shouldn't work — the way Ciaran Hinds' outrageous hamming as Weaver's vulgar ex-president ex-husband doesn't work — somehow much of it does. As long as you don't take a minute of it seriously.
BUT SERIOUSLY: The one can't-miss hour this weekend is, as usual, AMC's dark and devastating Breaking Bad (Sunday, 10/9c), which picks up in the grisly aftermath of last week's gut-wrenching and truly unforgivable crime. The emotional fallout gives everyone great material to play: Aaron Paul as Jesse, wracked with guilt over the latest casualty; Jonathan Banks as Mike, as usual fed up by the incompetence in his midst; even Jesse Plemons as Todd, the newbie who took his devotion to the team too far; and of course Bryan Cranston as Walt, whose moral relativism is chilling to behold, tainted by greed and pride and a literally burning desire to achieve his goals of criminal greatness. (He utters one new line likely to go down in the Walter White lexicon of catchphrases alongside "I am the danger.")
On the lighter side, if there is such a thing on this show anymore, there's a "guess who's coming to dinner" scene of such exquisite and unsettling awkwardness that I had the odd sensation of laughing, cringing and shuddering all at once. TV doesn't get badder than that.