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.
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.
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.
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