On “Boss,” Kelsey Grammer plays Mayor Tom Kane, who shows no mercy in disciplining those threatening his control over Chicago.
9 to 10 p.m. Fridays on Starz beginning Oct. 21. First episode now screening at starz.com/boss
Updated: January 23, 2012 4:24AM
The opening scene of the new Starz series “Boss” has Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) seated on a folding chair in an abandoned slaughterhouse while a doctor methodically delivers Kane’s death sentence. A degenerative brain disorder will kill the most powerful man in Illinois within three to five years — and those three to five years aren’t going to be pretty.
It’s a tense, riveting scene that serves as a campaign promise of sorts for what’s in store during the rest of the series debuting Friday, Oct. 21, on the pay cable channel.
I’m four episodes in and so far, “Boss” has delivered on that promise. The cable network’s political drama even has my vote for the best new show of the season.
“Boss” revolves around Kane, a charismatic career politician whose ruthlessness makes Machiavelli look like a pushover. He has to keep his illness a secret if he’s going to hold onto power, which is almost as vital as oxygen to Kane and those around him.
Grammer, who does double duty as executive producer of the series, might want to make room next to all of those “Frasier” Emmys, because more hardware could be headed his way. He puts his classically trained acting chops to use as the autocrat whose ironclad veneer shows signs of cracking under the weight of a deadly disease.
Connie Nielsen (“Gladiator”) pulls off an equally stellar performance as Kane’s formidable wife, Meredith, a Lady Macbeth dressed in pearls and designer skirt suits. Her hunger for power — hidden behind a gentle smile — trumps any maternal instincts she might have for their estranged daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware), who’s written off as a political liability.
Elmhurst resident and Steppenwolf ensemble member Francis Guinan plays the f-bomb-dropping governor, whose short fuse rivals that of Kane’s — and provides some welcome comic relief.
Another great character is the city itself, shown in all its gritty glory. “Boss” bounces between the seedier parts of town and the sleek skyscrapers and shiny Bean.
The show has a bit of a pseudo-documentary feel, thanks to a lot of low-lit, hand-held camera shots. (There also are a lot of eyeball close-ups that easily could be turned into a drinking game.) Gus Van Sant (“Milk,” “Good Will Hunting”) makes his TV directing debut with the first episode of the series, which Starz has already snapped up for a second season.
The Kanes’ complicated family dynamic and personal problems are reminiscent of “The Sopranos,” while the political storylines — the crux of which you’ve read about daily in this newspaper, from shady campaign contributions and city contracts to digging up graves for the O’Hare expansion — have a “West Wing” feel.
Make that a hardcore “West Wing” feel. Even the most ardent conspiracy theorists might find it difficult to buy some of the dirtier politics in “Boss,” despite creator Farhad Safinia’s efforts to keep it real.
Safinia (“Apocalypto”) said in a press release that he worried about taking it “too far,” but “then you take a look at real-life Chicago politics, and you realize: You can’t go too far.”
I’m not so sure. The repercussions for threatening Mayor Kane’s political dynasty occasionally are over the top. One young politician’s sexual exploits make Anthony Weiner look discreet. And as my Sun-Times colleague Mark Brown pointed out in his Tuesday column, “Boss” isn’t always an accurate portrayal of Chicago’s political process. (Mayors can’t just boot the public and the press out of a City Council meeting, as much as they’d like to.) But these periodic transgressions don’t justify yanking the writers’ dramatic license, especially when the result is so compelling.
During one of these compelling — if not entirely realistic — scenes, Kane persuades the state treasurer to make a last-minute bid for the governor’s office. They broker the deal on the roof of City Hall, where Kane recalls a Chicago made up of ethnic enclaves ably governed by former Mayor Anton Cermak.
“He understood something basic about all people,” Kane said of Cermak. “They want to be led.”
They want to be entertained, too, and “Boss” gets the job done.