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Starz’s Politics Drama Boss: Powerful But Messy, Just Like Its Subject

The dramatic grimness comes quick and often in Starz's new show starring Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago Mayor

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If you were wondering how positive the depiction of the Chicago mayoralty would be in Starz’s Boss, debuting Friday, you will soon have your answer. First, the title sequence opens with the folk/spiritual, “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” (By comparison, the Tom Waits injunction of the show’s seeming forebear The Wire—to “keep the devil way down in the hole”—seems almost optimistic.) Second, the opening scene finds mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) getting a diagnosis of a deadly neurological disease, and immediately plotting how to cover it up to protect his power. Third, the series is called Boss.

The dramatic grimness comes quick and often in the pilot of Boss, which makes Kane the big-shouldered embodiment of the will to power, working his will in ways political, criminal and violent. Boss is a swing-for-the fences drama that can be as reflexively cynical and brutal about politics as The West Wing was reflexively hopeful and earnest. It’s ambitious and operatic, certainly one of the most interesting and potentially promising offerings in a mostly cautious season of new fall shows. But true to its subject of politics, its early episodes are a mix of power and disappointment.

The show’s biggest asset is Grammer himself, who in the first few minutes pretty much obliterates any memory of Frasier Crane (let alone Hank). Kane, a much-feared machine politician, is in an abandoned slaughterhouse, being briefed on the illness that should kill him in a few years, and mentally enfeeble him before then.

The scene is masterly; Kane is grim and focused, peppering the doctor with questions while you see him working out the angles–the appearances, his legacy–then asking her, menacingly, to keep it quiet. Only then, driving off in a limo, does he let himself feel his death sentence.  (Director Gus Van Sant deserves credit, using cuts and tight shots to convey Kane’s caged energy, though elsewhere in the pilot Van Sant’s tics–closeup closeup closeup–can be distracting.)

You get the feeling that Chicago, too, cannot imagine life without Tom Kane. And writer-creator Farhad Safinia loads up the story with other conflicts to keep Kane and his staff busy. Kane injects himself in the governor’s race, endorsing the incumbent while secretly backing his young challenger (Jeff Hephner). A reporter (Troy Garity) is nosing around Kane’s medical secret. And most immediate: an airport-expansion project–already controversial because it involves digging up a 19th-century cemetery–is threatened when the diggers find a Native American archaeological trove, and one of Kane’s associates bungles handling the news.

When Grammer is stage-center, as he is much of the time, he is riveting. He plays Kane like an earthquake in a skin-and-three-piece-suit casing. When he unloads on an ally over the airport snafu, he delivers a profane, explosive monologue of Al Swearengenian proportions, which I need to quote at length and NSFW detail to truly get across:

“I’ve been accused of bulldozing the first amendment. Trashing people’s constitutional right to rest in peace until Jesus Christ’s redemptive resurrection at the world’s fuckin’ end! And I’ve only been dealing here with your average heroes of the Underground fuckin’ Railroad! Veterans of the fuckin’ Civil War! Families who hosted Abraham fuckin’ Lincoln! Lying in graves that happen to be lined up east-west, because they believed that Christ would return on that axis, which also happens to cut smack-fuckin’-bang across two of my runways!”

You’ll want to pat your hair back into place after that scene, but the pilot also shows how Kane leverages alliances and deceit to finesse his problems. The easy metaphor is that he plays Chicago politics like a chessboard, but really he wrestles it physically, like some complex, recalcitrant machine with rusty wheels and leather straps.

But there is more, much more, to Boss, and that is where it starts to run into trouble. The political subplots around Kane are overwrought to the point of silliness—particularly when they involve shoehorned-in Cinemax-after-dark sex scenes—and while the writing has flashes of humor, the general tone is distractingly self-serious and grandiose. (This is City Hall, but you’d think it was a Medici court.) And no other character is drawn nearly as well as Kane, the female characters coming off the worst.

Connie Nielsen plays Kane’s distanced wife Meredith with a quiet fearsomeness, but the character seems like a stock political ice queen. Young Kane adviser Kitty (90210’s Kathleen Robertson) is a sex-mad, wonky cipher, who seems to exist to reel off exposition and show her boobs. And Kane’s estranged daughter Emma (Hannah Ware) occupies a melodramatic drug subplot that plays like the worse parts of the movie Traffic. (Several supporting men fare better, especially Martin Donovan, minor-key malevolent as a soft-spoken mayoral adviser.)

In part, Boss’ problems come from playing like almost a parody of a dark, edgy cable show (not just because of a high nudity quotient and some surprisingly grotesque violence). Great shows in that vein (The Shield, Breaking Bad) are not just bleak but surprising, whereas in Boss, politicians and those around them are ugly and venal in exactly the ways you’d predict them to be. Of course Meredith is a frigid power wife in a marriage of pragmatism with Tom. Of course a politician introduced as an straight-arrow family man has a hidden, personal moral flaw, and PS, it’s probably the first or second one you just thought of.

None, of this, by the way, feels driven by any partisan argument–a question you might ask since Grammer is a vocal Republican and one would assume Kane is a Democrat (because it’s Chicago, and he’s the mayor). Boss pays close attention to the mechanics of government–like the legislative maneuver of attaching a controversial bill to a needed garbage-collection bill, or “trash to trash”–but not much attention to ideology. Kane’s allies seem core Democratic, but the show doesn’t give much sense of what his agenda is, beyond the raw exercise of power, nor does it convey the sense that anyone else in government is any better than he is.

The Wire, which Boss might like to emulate, was pessimistic in its view of society and organizations, but not in its view of individuals. People did bad things and did good things badly and did bad things for what they may have thought were good reasons. In Boss, so far, people by and large simply pursue naked self-interest–sometimes literally naked–with greater and lesser degrees of success. Not only are its politicians power-driven, cynical and without principle, they give speeches about how power-driven, cynical and without principle they are. It’s Shakespearean, but in the sense that nearly everyone is Iago.

But fine. That’s a worldview, and one that Boss is entitled to have. (Maybe it’s more realistic! Don’t ask me; I’m not Rahm Emanuel.) Its more global problem–and one I think the performances and core writing are strong enough to solve–is that its tone is all over the place. Sometimes we’re in a City Council negotiation, and the aim is docu-realism. Sometimes we’re in closed quarters, and we go full-on, stagey soliloquy. Sometimes a mysterious enforcer injects someone with a paralyzing drug and we’re on 24. And the closing moments, which I should not spoil, involve a shocker image of over-the-top brutality like something from The Godfather.

None of those are insulting comparisons. Any of them could make a great drama; what Boss needs to do is settle on one, or better, synthesize them into something that conveys its own voice.

There’s hope for that: Boss is most distinctive when it plays at an elevated level of stylized reality, in the way that Deadwood melded Shakespeare and Western dialect into a language that most likely no human ever spoke, yet felt absolutely right for its setting. Boss feels comfortable at epic scale–the speeches are mesmerizing, the actual small-bore conversation often stilted. (Safinia wrote Mel Gibson’s Pre-Columbian adventure movie Apocalypto, which also aimed big but was not exactly known for its lengthy stretches of naturalistic dialogue.)

I’ll keep watching to see if Boss pulls it off. (And it will have ample time; it’s already been picked up for a second season.) The show admirably refuses to play small ball, and it can potentially tell a grand story of what the hoarding of power can do to, and for, a populace. But it needs to deepen its characters and find its voice when Grammer is not sonorously speaking for it. As Tom Kane is learning, one great man can not carry a whole city alone forever.

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