Sunday, 23 October 2011

Review: BOSS, 1.1 - "Listen"

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Kelsey Grammer's struggled to find a hit since Frasier came to an end in 2004, with dreadful sitcoms like Back To You and Hank bombing with audiences. A gifted comic actor, but also just a great actor, it's no wonder he's decided to try his luck with cable drama (which often seems like the only place to find good work these days). Unusually for upstart Starz, which has made its name with saucy epics like Spartacus and Torchwood, Boss is a very serious political drama set in contemporary Chicago, with influences ranging from Shakespeare to the city's infamous gangster culture.

Grammer plays Tom Kane, the mayor of Chicago; a respected and popular politician with the city's voters, who's diagnosed with a fatal neurological disorder that will leave him with dementia in approximately five years. Opting to keep his condition a secret from distant wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen), whom he's only married to for convenience, and estranged daughter Emma (Hannah Ware), the rector of the First Episcopal Church, Kane resolves to continue working in politics without people knowing their leader has a weakness. Such people include state Governor McCall Cullen (Francis Guinan), who may have Kane's public support for re-election but senses his days are numbered now dashing State Treasurer Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner) has been taken under Kane's wing or ruthless Chicago Tribune reporter Sam Miller (Troy Garity), who's already snooping into Kane's medical history.

Like most drama pilots with a large ensemble and a half-dozen situations to set in motion, Boss has a busy first episode that's not always easy to grasp. It certainly doesn't help that I'm not au fait with the US political system (particular at a regional level), coming from a country where mayoral duties primarily involve wearing a ceremonial necklace to judge vegetables at a village fete. Things are clearly very different in the US, where Tom Kane's treated as the man who almost literally runs Chicago, and must do so without showing the slightest hint of an Achilles' heel. It's a job where receiving two severed human ears as a ghoulish gift is just another day at the office.

But when I wasn't trying to make sense of how the life of a city mayor works, Boss' pilot made the mistake of just being too self-satisfied and lackluster. A subplot with Kane's daughter Emma and a man called Darius (Rotimi Akinosho) trying to get drugs to help his sick uncle, was especially weak—mainly because actress Hannah Ware has no screen presence. We can only hope she ups her game when it comes to sharing the screen with the likes of Grammer in future, or it will be an unbearable mismatch. Elsewhere, some of the performances feel under-cooked—like Kane's aide Kitty (Kathleen Roberston), whose big moment is to have sex in a stairwell and rock the "naughty secretary" look—but others are more promising. I especially liked Connie Nielsen's measured performance, beautifully opposed to her larger-than-life screen husband.

Boss feels like it'll provide a brilliant showcase for Grammer, and contains several elements in common with existing Emmy-winning shows: it's political like a less idealized The West Wing, Kane might become something of a latter-day Nucky Thompson from Boardwalk Empire; the mayor's hiding a deadly ailment like Breaking Bad's Walter White; moments reminded me of something you'd expect from The Sopranos, and the environments evoked Damages at times. I'm only surprised this series isn't set in the '70s or '80s.

I already have no doubt Grammer will be making the awards shortlists next spring, but I'm less certain Boss has anything worth watching beyond a dazzling lead performance. But maybe a magnetic lead is enough for now, so Grammer can hook our interest while the writers work out exactly how to make the stories and characters around him click. Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Elephant) is the latest famous director to helm a television pilot, setting out the show's visual style and aesthetic, and he does a decent job at that—although there were times when it felt over-directed as if to compensate for how the story slouches whenever Grammer's not around.

A good start, if a slight disappointment for me... but Grammer's gravitas and attack of the script is stupendous, and there's most definitely a chance to craft something brilliant from its many derivative parts.

written by Farhad Safinia / directed by Gus Van Sant / 21 October 2011 / Starz