The cancellation of Boss is something that struck me as strange, extremely disappointing and somewhat fitting. When a show you like gets cancelled there are two types of thoughts that present themselves to a bereaved TV viewer: what was lost and what was learned.

What was lost is an easy question to answer. Boss was a well written and gritty drama that approached the haloed levels of an all-time great show like The Wire. While it would be difficult to place Boss ahead of The Wire in the pantheon of great television shows, it isn’t as hard to argue that the acting in Boss was probably better than that of The Wire. Though, to be fair to the cast of The Wire, the characters in Boss were given much meatier monologues.

At the Golden Globes, Boss was nominated for Best Drama and Kelsey Grammer earned a nod for Best Actor due to his portrayal of Mayor of Chicago Tom Kane. While Grammer won his category, the show lost to Homeland. Even still, the one Golden Globe is more than The Wire ever won and it’s likely that Boss earns some nominations on the strength of its second season as well.

It wasn’t just the acting that distinguished Boss from its television peers, the story was a multifaceted piece of work that enveloped the viewer and made moral judgments of the characters increasingly complex. To its great credit, the show managed to be entertaining without sacrificing intelligence. That sort of ability to express a meaningful message while keeping the audience enthralled by the characters and their maneuvers indicates the Shakespearean elements of Boss.

Ghosts haunted the main character Tom Kane, portrayed wonderfully by Kelsey Grammer, in much the same what that the ghost of Hamlet’s father conversed, tormented and inspired Hamlet. Each character in Boss was motivated by vices associated with the craven pursuit of power, not unlike the characters in King Lear. The show’s ethical examination circled around the idea that what Mayor Tom Kane was doing his best for the city he governed, even if on the surface it was morally indefensible, which is similar to the plight of Julius Caesar.

So if Boss was a modern day Shakespearean drama that was quickly approaching the stature of The Wire, the show most adored by television critics, why was it cancelled? This is where the ‘what we learned’ question comes in.

It’s easy to say that Boss was cancelled due to low ratings. The fact of the matter is that while the ratings did decline from season one to season two, that only tells part of the story. The real cause of death for Boss is that Starz didn’t own the show.

There are plenty of other shows of past and present that have gotten ratings lower than those of Boss, but earned renewal anyway. The difference, in most cases, between those shows and Boss is that Boss wasn’t owned by the channel that put it on air. As a result, Starz was broadcasting a show that, like The Wire, was a critical darling and cultivated a cult following but Starz, because they didn’t own the show, was not going to gain financially for DVD sales or oversea broadcasting rights.

Unable to earn a massive audience, which typically requires the dumbing-down of a show, Boss’ greatest financial viability was in DVD sales. Since Starz wasn’t going to gain from that source of income, the network was inclined to only focus on ratings and subscribers. For all its merits, Boss couldn’t offer much in the way of mass appeal and was therefore deemed by Starz to be a financial burden.

The takeaway from that is the affirmation that subscriber dependent stations like Starz cannot support critically acclaimed shows with a small audience. HBO, Showtime and Cinemax like to claim that shows with limited viewership are worthy investments if they bring critical acclaim and prestige to the network, but the fact is that those networks have shows and programs on offer that bring in a large audience and make up for shows high on quality but low on appeal. Starz did not have that sort of tent pole popular appeal show and therefore couldn’t carry a narrowly appreciated program like Boss.

The real question is that if Boss had been owned by the network, would it still have been as good?

If Starz owned Boss, the network might have found it financially fruitful enough to renew. However, that ownership might have entailed less creative freedom for the show’s creator Farhad Safinia. That high level of independence allowed Boss to aspire to a high level of realism in terms of political and personal issues.

It’s often an obnoxious thing to say that something underappreciated, as Boss was, was just ‘too real’ for most people to get behind. But I do think the harsh realism of Boss simultaneous made the show great and scared away a large swath of TV viewers.

When one thinks of the other political shows dotting the TV landscape it becomes quickly apparent that people prefer bubble gum politics to a hard-hitting expose’ of the vices necessary to gain and maintain power. Shows like The Good Wife, The Newsroom and The West Wing all present bite sized bits of the political machinery that can be digested by viewers wanting to either see a soap opera version of public affairs or an idealized Aaron Sorkin version of what politics could be.

Boss didn’t offer any such illusions. The politics of Boss was dirty and mean and a far more realistic interpretation of how government actually runs than anything else on TV. What’s more, Boss served as a base level course in sociology, political science, literature, and psychology. That sort of smart television accurately represents the world as a complex interdisciplinary twisting of facts, theories and philosophies that is nearly impossible to make sense of.

Boss was by no means an easy hour to watch. But of course any realistic depiction of life couldn’t be easy. Boss might have been saved if it was owned by Starz, but it is a safe bet that such ownership would not have allowed Boss to delve into the muddled waters of moral ambiguity that its plot relished in depicting.

The lessons learned from episodes of Boss offer great insight into the lessons disgruntled TV viewers should take away from the show’s cancellation. In a world where everyone’s existence is dependent upon securing their own survival, there is very little room for high minded idealism. The plot of Boss did an excellent job of dissecting how human nature lends itself to self preservation and egoism and that money and power lorded over interests in the public good or values that couldn’t be easily quantified. Starz had to think about their bottom line and for all its high quality, Boss was bad for business. In a Shakespearean turn of meta-theatrics, the cancellation of Boss reaffirms the show’s overriding theme.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+