Starz's "Boss" returns for its second season Friday at 9 p.m. following a low-rated first season that veered from entrancing political thriller to over-the-top gothic soap as Chicago's corrupt Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) wreaked vengeance on anyone who got in his way.
"Boss" ran off the rails toward the end of its first season when the show, in its effort to make every character complicated and painted in varying shades of gray, revealed that everyone on the show was venal and compromised. Rather than being multifaceted, the characters were rendered one-note cynical, and there was no one left to root for.
Now that it's clear that "Boss" is muck-filled with no characters of morally redeeming value, it's easier to settle into the show without the usual expectations.
But it's tough to imagine anyone who didn't watch "Boss" in season one will hop on board now. If they do they'll find a series that's more propulsive and less beholden to Kane's point of view. Other characters rise more to the foreground as the secret, neurological disease Kane suffers from takes a greater toll as he hallucinates frequently, seeing other "Boss" characters -- both living and dead -- in his midst saying things that eat at his conscience or fulfill his desires.
Through the first five episodes of season two Kane faces new challenges as he attempts to maintain his power and maybe even set right past misdeeds as a way of cementing his legacy before his death.
Last season ended with the murder of disloyal Kane adviser Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) -- seemingly at the behest of Kane -- so this season Kane has a new adviser in the form of Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff, "Glee"), who seems a milquetoast at first but ultimately proves willing to do anything -- anything -- to get the job done without revealing secrets he harbors from his past.
Former Kane loyalist Kitty (Kathleen Robertson) abandons her affair with gubernatorial candidate Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) and goes to work for his political rival, leading to a terrifically plotted reveal in episode five.
Although "Boss" became a super-frustrating show in its first season, season two pulls viewers back on board with intriguing plot twists, more light moments and strong performances. But I still couldn't help but ask series creator Farhad Safinia about my problems with the show in season one; that making the characters so not-good in a variety of ways rendered the show one-note cynical.
"When you watch 'Richard III' being performed, you walk away from it feeling some empathy for Richard III as a character but during it you're just watching him do dastardly deeds of a truly well-drawn anti-hero," Mr. Safinia said after a Starz press conference this month in Beverly Hills, Calif. "And that's something we wanted to try to pull off with this show. An argument could be made why couldn't you have one or two great, good people in the show and I think we actually do but because the performances of Kelsey and Kathleen are so strong, people only tend to remember them, but there are good characters in the show who are trying to do good things. They may fall short, but they're not after personal gains or corrupt means at all."
And I'd argue "Boss" lost me last season when newspaper reporter Sam Miller (Troy Garity), the show's last vestige of a crusading good-guy, agreed to look the other way on a Kane story in exchange for being made editor of the Chicago Sentinel. But I'm still hooked on "Boss" even after that; watching Kane and his political machine proved too mesmerizing to resist.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.