Farhad Safinia was in Paris last week to attend Séries Mania Festival season 4, an event dedicated to TV shows from all around the world. The creator of Boss – a show that follows Tom Kane a fictional mayor of Chicago dying from a neurological disease and trying to keep his powerful position by any means – gave a great masterclass.
Interview of one of the most talented author on American TV. ILTVSW was lucky enough to seat with him for half an hour.
ILTVSW: Some people say The West Wing shows the world as it should be and Boss shows the world as it is. What do you think of this assumption?
Farhad Safinia: The West Wing was a very inspirational story, a hopeful story in a world you wish it existed. But I don’t necessary think than as a result Boss is more real. There are certain departures from reality in Boss that are as extreme if not more so than whatever departures from reality were in The West Wing. They are just very different kinds of departures. The tone of Boss is so completely different from The West Wing that it is very hard to draw any kind of comparison between the two apart from the fact that they are both about politics. What I would say about Boss is it’s a world that should be recognizable but only because of the exaggeration that we make. In terms of the texture of the world, the characters and the plot line. The most important thing to say is that there are many sources of inspiration for Boss that are from the real world. It is a universal story that’s why it feels kind of real to people. But there are fictional inspirations too. I said that King Lear was one of them. Boss is very operatic. When you go to see an opera, people are getting poisoned, they are stabbing themselves, it’s very melodramatic but you walk away with a certain element of truth about your own life and I hope the show does that as well.
ILTVSW: Maybe they thought so because reality is way darker than in The West Wing?
F.S. This is an interesting point because we are talking here and we are in France and there is a big difference between the anticipation and expectations of European cultures about their entertainment versus American culture which I become very aware of as a result particularly of this show. There is a big desire in American entertainment to be very positive and very hopeful about what it is that you are seeing. One of the things that people always say on American television is: who can I relate to? Who is my friend? Which character in the story do I like? There is no such question in French entertainment, English entertainment, Deutsch or Danish entertainment. You watch the very dark and interesting shows that come out of these European cultures where there is no need to make any character likable necessarily because people aren’t looking for that. There is a degree of an appreciation of being diverted in your mind and entertained that it doesn’t necessarily have to come about the result of something light and hopeful. It can be extraordinary dark and dissembling. It is a kind of gross generalization in both country there are people who like both kind of thing. But it manifests itself more than anything in sports. I grew up in England and in France, when I moved to the United States I noticed American sports were so much more about instant gratification. In basketball you get a hundred points in one game, in American football you get thirty, forty, fifty points and you compare to football, soccer where it is a game of frustration. That is so manifest in the American culture as well and in the american politics. Those are some of the differences between the two. When you look at shows like Boss and The West Wing you notice some of those cultural differences.
ILTVSW: David Simon’s work in The Wire or Treme would be a counter-example?
F.S. I have never met him, but David Simon in The Wire made an European show. The pace of it. The degree of language. David Milch as well with Deadwood. Sorkin loves language too. But the thing is the desire not to necessarily come to an optimistic point of view. About Boss, I think there is a voice of optimism in it. I think you can’t be that pessimistic or dark about anything without somehow showing a way out potentially which I don’t put a big spotlight on but certainly if you watch like the first season of Boss, one of the most cynical hard edge most irredeemable characters in the show does something entirely naive, optimistic and hopeful at the end which is a horrible thing but still is for something better.
ILTVSW: What could be the way out?
F.S. In my opinion, though, I actually think the way out comes from inside. I don’t think we can affect an enormous amount of change from the outside. Which is contrary to what a lot of people say. They say that if we pour into the streets, we really shout, we can make stuff happen but too many times you have seen that power of people dissipates and not get anywhere. Whether you look at the Occupy Wall Street movement in America, the Tea party… Boss is not a show about ideology, it does not place itself on a political spectrum. It’s not about my own personal politics. The galvanization of popular desire to affect some kind of change dissipates within the political system. It sort of evaporates. It is almost as though the system is designed not really to respond. That’s something I have been frustrated with and I think that’s something that applies no matter what your political ideology is. We talk about vested interest who don’t want change, who are benefiting from the status quo, who are providing for themselves by the system that is in place, they don’t want to make any change and that’s the key point of what the show talks about.
ILTVSW: Why was Chicago the perfect town for Boss?
F.S. It worked out this way, I first new the story I wanted to tell, the characters and then we chose the location. When you look to it that way it is almost impossible not to pick Chicago. What’s the story about? It is a story about high power corruption, brokenness of the political system also about a king ruling a powerful kingdom where he is unchallenged by his rivals around him but at the same time if he shows any kind of weakness they are going to jump at him. Which is a very universal story, it goes back to anything you have read from Shakespeare, French, Italian literature, Elizabethan times, all those kinds of things. That’s who he is. And the guy himself is not a king who inherited his throne, he climbed up through ambition which is a very American story. You take those two things and you say where am I going to place that story? Chicago is the perfect place. It is like a kingdom in the center of the country which the mayors have ruled very much like powerful monarchs. And the setting is so perfect. It feels like an opera stage. Anytime you don’t know what to do with a camera, anytime you don’t know how to end a scene just show some people, some architecture of this beautiful city, it just tells you so much more symbolically that you could ever do in writing. So we were very lucky to be able to go there.
ILTVSW: What is so likable in this for the audience? Times are tough, you could think people would want escapism…
F.S. I think that’s actually not the case. I mean some people want that. I remember I was living in the United States after 9/11 happened. And the number one movie at the Box office was this Owen Wilson/Gene Hackman film Behind the enemy lines about an American soldier who gets drop behind the lines in Serbia and fights is own way back or something like that. It was pure escapism. But it was a huge hit and I think it wouldn’t have been unless these people had had this trauma happen to them to that degree. It was a good film. An action film. That’s the thing people want a get away. I should think there is another segment of the population that basically just likes to be taken inside worlds they don’t get to experience. That is very powerful and it does not necessarily has to dot with an optimistic point of view or a pessimistic one. This is incredibly compelling. I myself whenever I am taken in a journey like that, my adrenaline is rushing, I just love that kind of story telling. That’s the key behind it.
Copyright ILTVSW 2013
Next week in ILTVSW… Oops, not decided yet, sorry