(Note: Although two episodes of Boss have aired, I have only watched the first, so this is still, from my end at least, a pilot review. Just wanted to clear that up first thing.)
The show: Boss, Fridays on Starz
The premise in ten words or less? He's the mayor of Chicago!
Any good? I was absolutely taken with Boss from the opening frames and stayed riveted to the screen from then on in a way no other new series this fall this side of Homeland can claim. This is dense, brainy, literate television; endlessly stylish, ferociously acted and bursting with potential. I'm not going to claim it's on the level of Starz's Spartacus franchise – you gotta work your way up to claims like that – but as of one episode in it seems like a fascinating dark mirror of The West Wing, responding to every facet of that show's hope and optimism with the same on the opposite end of the spectrum. Boss is pure political cynicism.
The story centers around the fictitious mayor of Chicago, one Tom Kane, brought to life with startling power by Kelsey Grammer, so far removed from Frasier Crane that if you didn't know beforehand you would never guess or even believe that this man was a sitcom star for twenty years. From the opening scene, a minutes-long static shot of his face as he receives a dire medical prognosis (an opening which I might add is incredibly ballsy and unusual filmmaking for a TV series), he says infinitely more with almost indecipherably subtle shifts of his eyes and jaw than, say, Poppy Montgomery was able to with agonizing, protracted monologues about her dead sister in Unforgettable.
But don't get the wrong idea – while Boss is unafraid to dwell on silence when it serves the mood, Tom Kane is no silent protagonist. In fact, he immediately follows this long, restrained opening with a big all-American speech at a political event, and later on the pilot tosses some lengthy, downright Shakespearian (if Shakespeare used the word "fuck" more, anyway) monologues his way, which Grammer tears into with explosive, almost terrifying fury. One episode in and I'm already prepared to call bullshit if he doesn't secure an Emmy nomination.
To discuss the rest of the cast, I first need to get into the story, and hoo boy. Unlike certain other shows I've discussed this season (especially the last show I reviewed, ABC's Man Up), Boss is anything but thin on plot. In addition to the health issues, illicit securing of medication and generally screwed up personal life of the titular boss, stories that all receive their fair share of screentime, the first episode of Boss shoots plot threads in every direction you care to name. There's Kane's machinations and back-scratching and vote wrangling toward securing an expansion to the airport, there's appeasing various interest groups, there's Kane grooming the up-and-coming Illinois State Treasurer to primary the governor of Illinois, although the young political stud has some dark sides of his own.
And there's Kane's daughter Emma: political heiress, woman of God, charity worker, crack addict. She may not have the second-most screentime after Kane (that would probably be Kane's right-hand operators, Kitty O'Neill and Ezra Stone), but she does have the second most screentime in scenes from her point of view without the mayor in them, scenes that seem to be setting up a greater plot significance down the road.
And all that isn't even getting into various other subplots about construction workers, school renovation, or Chicago journalism that the series kicks off immediately and throws you right into the deep end of. The pilot of Boss is basically trying to launch into the fifth season of The Wire right out of the gate, with various institutions and points of view spanning every inch of the Windy City. There's even a little sex and violence in the mix, but I won't spoil the specifics there.
So as for the supporting cast, I am definitely liking Kathleen Robertson and Martin Donovan as Kane's aforementioned inner circle: Donovan radiates utter give-no-fuck confidence as Ezra Stone, while Robertson's Kitty O'Neill, able to rattle off a litany of Chicago politics facts at a moment's notice, is a creepy, cool ice queen. Connie Nielsen doesn't get enough screentime as Kane's estranged wife Meredith to make too much impact just yet, and nothing Hannah Ware did as Emma or Jeff Hephner as the rising State Treasurer Ben Zajac just blew me away in the pilot, but there's plenty of room to grow.
But, although I referenced HBO's magnum opus up above, I should be clear: Boss is not The Wire when it comes to realism. Maybe not even Breaking Bad. Boss (perhaps befitting the network that airs Spartacus) is hugely stylized, almost operatic. The camera work can be flashy, the entertaining, theatrical dialogue can have little in common with anything any human has ever actually said, the music can be sledgehammer.
In one scene, as Kane explains the history of various districts of Chicago to Zajac while standing atop a high building, the camera spins in a wide circle as the various regions of the city fade into historical versions of themselves from old America. Despite its cynicism and realpolitik, this is not a show that exactly purports to take place in reality.
And for my money, that's awesome. Just one hour into what I imagine will hopefully be a few dozen and Boss already evokes the feel of an epic Greek tragedy, not the least because of how the first scene of the series makes it obvious this thing has to end. There is one particular scene in the pilot involving one of Kane's guys threatening someone who knows a secret about him in a gratuitously flamboyant manner that went just a little too far out of the bounds of reality for me, but other than that this is television that straddles the fine line of being flashy, loud and bold without sacrificing subtlety, intelligence, or complexity.
There's something inherently funny about watching Kelsey Grammer not only anchor but positively excel in one of the best new shows of the year, because I regard his last show, ABC's short-lived sitcom Hank, to be literally and without one iota of hyperbole the worst scripted show of the last five years. Hank is so apocalyptically awful I actually recommend students of television watch it as a fascinating example of how every single conceivable thing can go wrong in the creation of a show, a quick and efficient guide of everything not to do. But hopping from Hank to Boss goes to show that while you can count an actor down, you can never truly count them out.
Will I watch again? Like Homeland, I'm definitely with this one for the duration of at least the first season.