‘Boss’ Series Premiere Review

Published 4 years ago by , Updated October 31st, 2011 at 12:04 am,

boss premiere review kelsey grammer Boss Series Premiere Review

Starz’ latest original offering is Boss, a political thriller that puts television icon Kelsey Grammer in both the leading actor and executive producer roles. The show is a gritty and uncompromising look at the dark side (or from Boss‘s perspective, the only side) of American politics.

Right at the opening of Boss, the audience is given what is probably going to be the motivating dramatic arc throughout the series: Tom Kane (Grammer), the multi-decade mayor of Chicago, is losing his mind. His doctor informs him in secret that he’s suffering the early stages of an irreversible neurological disease and that he will begin to convulse and hallucinate within months. Kane, the undisputed ruler of Chicago and its political arena, keeps the secret to himself.

Elsewhere Kane and the rest of the city is gearing up for a gubernatorial election. His rival is in trouble and knows it, so Kane picks up-and-coming Treasurer Zajac (Jeff Hephner) to beat him in the primary election. At the same time, Kane’s wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen) is drumming up support as Chicago’s first lady; a decades-long expansion of O’Hare airport is stalled; and various players risk discovering Kane’s biggest secret.

The mayor rules alternately with an iron fist and a silk glove. Never one to back down, he employs the stick and the carrot with equal skill, sliding in a renovation to a trash pickup bill to push through the airport deal. When the city council cries foul, he locks them in chambers and demands a yes or no vote. It’s heady (and all to often real) material if you’re a newshound, and it’s done in a realistic and cynical style that will put off fans of the black-and-white politics of The West Wing. Boss is more like a modern version of Boardwalk Empire with even less sympathetic characters. Politics or rhetoric hardly come into the discussion at all – it’s all about grabbing power and holding on to it.

boss grammar nielsen starz Boss Series Premiere Review

Kelsey Grammer and Connie Nielsen star in 'Boss'

Mayor Tom Kane is a bad man. If there’s any doubt of that at the beginning of Boss‘s premiere episode, it’s completely dispelled by the end. Kane is ruthless, sly and absolutely without scruples – and what’s more, he’s smart enough to use these qualities alternately like a scalpel or a broadsword. No one is exempt from his blessings, and no one is safe from his wrath.

As a central character, Kane shines. Grammer has always done well with more flamboyant roles, and in a very specific way, Kane is as animated as they get. When he’s ministering to his would-be protege or slapping around an under-performing underling, Grammer shows off his range with precision and skill. A couple of moments get a little grand and seem out of place in the gritty and cynical political landscape, but they only serve to portray Kane as slightly larger than life.

The problem comes in when there’s no one to balance Kane out. Boss doesn’t practice character assassination so much as character massacre – Kane’s rivals and allies on both sides of the law are all as ruthless as he is, just not as shrewd. His family and friends are as criminally self-interested. The one sign that we see of human compassion in the pilot is almost immediately crushed by an equally human flaw.

boss jeff hephner ben zajac Boss Series Premiere Review

Separately all of these characters work, and even serve to illustrate the “nothing is sacred” message driven home in the first few minutes. But with almost zero sympathy or compassion, I have to wonder how long the audience can be expected to care. Everyone is furiously chasing after power, and those who aren’t are hitched onto another wagon. In a city-wide political cockfight, who really cares who ends up on top?

Boss is carried by Grammer, and while there’s really nothing to complain about with the other actors and actresses, there’s nothing to rave about, either. This isn’t a put-down; in the pilot there simply isn’t enough for the supporting cast to do. We’ll get a better look at the rest of the cast and characters as the series progresses – I’m particularly looking forward to Connie Nielson as Meredith, Kane’s ambitious wife of convenience, in particular.

As much as it thrills me to see a major series that isn’t set in New York City or Los Angeles, the cinematography in Boss spoils its relatively novel setting. It’s clear that the producers have a real respect for Chicago, but in a place that has some wonderful scenery and architecture, we’re only given fleeting glances of dingy streets and offices.

The handheld style persists throughout, employing a jittery camera even in indoor and car interior shots. This may not bother everyone, but there’s literally not one moment where the viewer can take a breather from the jostling camera. It’s distracting and in most cases unnecessary – I hope they go with more traditional methods after the pilot.

starz boss hannah ware Boss Series Premiere Review

If I can complain about the cinematography choices, then I must praise the restraint used in Boss‘s storytelling. Starz has free reign when it comes to violence, swearing and nudity, but unlike even the best of HBO and Showtime’s offerings, Boss uses these storytelling tools at exactly the right moment and to the right degree. Yes, this is an adult show and the kids should be put to bed before watching, but it doesn’t assault you with language, violence or sexuality for their own sake. Dialogue and mature themes are situational in a way that should be commended, and aren’t played up to make the show seem more extreme.

Boss is undeniably well-done, with a story and dialogue that entertains throughout. But two of the production choices – a lack of any moral characters and a dedication to a bleak and annoying visual style – drag it down. Grammer’s scenery-chewing performance is enough to make me want to see more, but if the show can’t introduce some reasons to care about one character or another (or at least make some TV that doesn’t leave you with a headache) I can’t see it going very far.

If you’re a fan of character-driven drama that shies away from right or wrong choices – a la Boardwalk Empire or Breaking Bad - definitely give it a shot.


Boss airs Friday nights at 10PM on Starz.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @MichaelCrider

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  1. been keeping an eye on this it’s looked great from the previews. I have it on my DVR right now and as soon as i finish Batman Arkham City I plan to watch it.

    • Speaking as a PC gamer, you have my unending jealousy right now.

  2. I watched the 1st episode on-demand earlier this week and I really liked it. I have never seen Grammer in a role like this. I think the one character that will be the most interesting to watch will be Kane’s daughter. The pilot left a few questions about her but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I won’t give it away. I’ll definately check out episode 2…

  3. Watched this last night. I think there were too many things thrown at us for the pilot, i.e., Kane, wife, daughter, the female assistant, the airport, governor wanna be, the doctor, etc. Maybe it would’ve been better to make it 90 minute pilot, that way it wouldn’t have felt so jammed together. I’m curious and will watch another couple episodes but they’ve got to give us a bit to get interested, spread it out a little bit, maybe give us a bit of history on the main characters so we can care about them.

  4. Hear, Hear! I thought Grammer was wonderful but needs to have room to grow into this character after the thrilling, opening disclosure.

    And what a jumble of characters it is. They should be slowly intoduced.
    No one cares about them yet.

    Not HBO and the lack of that caliber of writing is evident.

  5. What I find interesting is the location…isn’t it intriguing that the last episode of “Frasier” had him flying off to Chicago, and here Kelsey Grammer is, still in the Windy City?

    Interesting pilot, but if I see David Hyde Pierce, Jane Leeves, or a dog that even LOOKS like Moose (the dog that played Eddie), I’m kicking this off my DVR queue; John Mahoney, I can see showing up here, as he’s a longtime member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.

  6. Are you kidding me…this show is so good. I can’t wait for the next episode. Thank you Mr. Grammer. This should do well considering how people feel about politics right now.

  7. This show is really great! It shows Kelsey Grammer in a totally different light from Frasier and Back-To-You, and it is really interesting to see a different side of politics, even if this is a tv show. I don’t think there are words to describe how excited I am for the next episode, because I am totally hooked to this series! I am an avid Kelsey Grammer fan, having watched him on Cheers, Frasier, Back-To-You and even at La Cage aux Folles. And it is so good to see him in another show, doing what he does best- acting!

  8. I watched 5 episodes and was left with nothing more than a sense of despair. The same feeling I had after enduring Apocalypto.

    So I began analyzing my feelings to find out why.

    Here’s a show telling me politics in an American city is about power struggles. Oh and there’s corruption and debauchery. Okay, I get that. I get it when I read the news. So there has to be more. Also, I needed something to validate the hollowness of what is looking like a well made soft porn.

    I could not find anything. David Milch’s Deadwood ruined me. It has been hard to watch anything like this without making a comparison. Boss throws me and my humanity into a pit of darkness, and says that’s where you belong for all eternity.

    Do I need to be told that? Is there no hope? Heh.. I’m letting this one go.

  9. Awesome show