Review: Boss 1×1

Starz's first non-tacky drama

Boss with Kelsey Grammer

In the US: Fridays, 10pm ET/PT, Starz

A little while ago, I mocked Starz. To be fair, it’s very deserving of mockery, given Camelot and – gods help us – Torchwood: Miracle Day, just for starters.

But Starz is trying, really trying, not to be the the worst and tackiest of the cable networks when it comes to drama. Even though it shows Spartacus, which while quite good in quite a lot of respects, still has the Starz tacky DNA in every cell of its green-screened, over-developed body.

Yet now, with Boss, they’ve actually got a show that’s very good and only makes you think “Ooh, that’s a bit tacky, isn’t it?” two or three times in its entire hour-long first episode. It stars Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago and shows in glorious detail why the two things in life you don’t want to see being made are sausages and laws.

Here’s a trailer.

Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) sits like a spider at the center of Chicago’s web of power; a web built on a covenant with the people. They want to be led, they want disputes settled, jobs dispensed, and loyalties rewarded. If he achieves through deception and troubling morality, so be it. As long as he gets the job done, they look the other way.

Yet despite being the most effective mayor in recent history, a degenerative brain disorder is ripping everything away from him. He can’t trust his memory, his closest allies, or even himself.

Kane’s wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen) knows nothing. Theirs is a marriage of convenience. Kitty O’Neil (Kathleen Robertson), Kane’s advisor, has her suspicions but stays silent. And Kane’s political advisor Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan), a Yale graduate with a rough edge, remains questionless.

Only Emma (Hannah Ware), Kane’s estranged daughter, has a chance of learning his secret. This is going to be the toughest term yet for the Boss.

Starring: Kelsey Grammer, Connie Nielsen, Kathleen Robertson, Hannah Ware, Jeff Hephner, Martin Donovan, Francis Guinan, Rotimi Akinosho, Troy Garity

Is it any good?
Getting Gus Van Sant to direct your first episode is something of a mixed blessing. The pros are obvious: he’s a very good director and brings an incredible visual style to things. The cons are less obvious: Boss‘s first episode is quite hard to follow, flitting hither and thither, the shaky cam offering no help to anyone who wants to focus on what’s going on – and there’s a hell of a lot to pay attention to.

In a lot of ways, the show could have learnt from Showtime’s Brotherhood, a show that it’s clearly emulating, given its combination of corrupt politics and gangsters. That managed to fit in dense, complicated plots by using very still direction and slow, deliberate pacing. Van Sant’s direction, while it looks great, hinders the telling of the story.

Nevertheless, hiding under that Van Sant sheen is a good drama with a good cast. Kelsey Grammer is eye-opening as the mayor, never once raising a laugh, his performance almost unrecognisable as that of the man who gave us Frasier Crane and Hank. But you also have Connie Nielsen as his wife, giving us a very subtle counterbalance to Grammer’s raging but benevolent tyrant. Hal Hartley favourite Martin Donovan is also in there and Jeff Hephner must be thanking his lucking stars that he got thrown off the quickly cancelled The Playboy Club, thus allowing him to have a better role in this – which has already been guaranteed a second season. The show also has a certain “heightened” sense of dialogue that the actors obviously love to get their teeth into as well.

The drama itself largely revolves around Grammer’s handling of politics, dealing with pressure groups and manipulating other councillors and proceedings to get what he wants, using whatever means he has to hand. There are sub-plots concerning his druggie daughter, and a degenerative condition that’s going to cause him to dement in the next few years – and how he’s going to treat and cover up that condition.

Fully embracing Buckley’s “Broken Chicago” Hypothesis, which states that all shows set in Chicago must always include corrupt politicians and mobsters, there’s a whole load of mobsters as well and sometimes mobsters who are also councillors. These are less than convincing, with Latino mobster-councillors chopping off underlings’ ears and giving them as tributes to Grammer and other mobsters (or are they journalists?) syringing doctors and threatening their kids to get them to break doctor-patient confidentiality. Even Gus Van Sant’s direction can’t make that seem anything less than excessive and unlikely.

Generally, though, this is a good show with only a few teething problems that will hopefully get fixed in later episodes, just as Brotherhood managed. How popular it will be remains to be seen, since it’s not enjoyable, per se, but at the very least Starz now has a show it can point to and claim is genuinely good and classy.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.