In the first few seconds of Starz’s new political drama “Boss,” Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer, “Cheers”) of Chicago is diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder. In an abandoned Chicago slaughterhouse — chosen for its discretion — a physician meets with the mayor and rambles off a long list of symptoms, sounding much like a commercial for a drug with endless devastating side effects. She gives Kane three to five years to live.
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To kill off the show’s lead character in that first few minutes of a pilot is bold. To have that lead character quote Upton Sinclair in the pilot’s first scene is nothing short of lofty. “Boss” tries hard to impress the audience with its grisly portrayal of municipal politics, but it’s unsuccessful, instead weaving a muddled storyline filled with implausible characters who can go on for long, eloquent monologues that never really say anything.
The few successes of “Boss” rest in the talents of Grammer and the pilot’s director, Gus Van Sant (“Milk”). Grammer proves he can do drama just as well as comedy, committing fully to this complex and disturbing character. Van Sant manages to make the best of a disorganized and strained script, infusing the show with his trademark style of close-ups and slow-motion sequences. But when the camerawork is the most exciting part of a political thriller, there is definitely a problem.
The main failure of “Boss” is its exaggeration of the extent of debauchery in local politics. Yes, it’s easy for the audience to believe that bribery, strong-arming, blackmailing and philandering happen at the city level of politics, and successfully expressing this on television has been done before. HBO’s “The Wire” effectively captured the complexity and corruption in local government. But “Boss” takes the immorality to an extreme, probably for the sake of dark drama and shock value. Forced injection of paralyzers, “Reservoir Dogs”-esque ear-chopping, violence in the mayor’s office — none of the more startling moments of “Boss” ring with any sense of validity.
Likewise, the characters of “Boss” seem forced and unrealistic. The writers of the show lean quite heavily on the ever-growing idea that audiences love anti-heroes and lead characters who would be completely unlovable in the real world. This movement began with Tony Soprano but has been perpetuated by recent dramatic characters like Don Draper, Walter White and Dexter Morgan, who capture the hearts of television viewers despite questionable morals and motives. But again, the writers of “Boss” outdo themselves. Kane is painted as a horrible, erratic tornado of a man. His only real emotional attachment appears to be to his daughter Emma (Hannah Ware, “Shame”), but even his attempts to contact her are not enough to convince anyone Kane is worth rooting for.
The other characters of “Boss” have the potential to become interesting and dynamic, but they feel contrived in the pilot. Kane’s wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen, “Gladiator”), with her frosty tone and manipulative behavior, makes Betty Draper look like a ray of sunshine. Emma is the only character who piques any sort of curiosity. She appears to be estranged from both of her parents and works as a nurse at a free clinic. Oh yeah, and she might be a drug addict. The writers haven’t made this twist convincing enough yet, and it’s doubtful Emma is the new Jackie Peyton.
If the writers focus on developing their characters more and making the storylines more natural and believable, “Boss” has the potential to develop into a fascinating dramatic exposé of municipal politics and city corruption. Grammer can pull off a twisted character, but the writers need to find something to make him at least a little redeemable and relatable if they want the audience to care.