October 22, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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BOSS:  Fridays 10PM on Starz – Potential DVR Alert
BOSS is Starz’s bid to be taken seriously as a pay-TV producer of original programming.  Up until now, Starz has been both successful (Spartacus) and not-so successful (Camelot) in its original shows, but all of them have been somewhat junky–even Torchwood:  Miracle Day, with its BBC gleam of class.  But Starz is now headed by Chris Albrecht, who used to be honcho at HBO, and with Boss, the network announces that it wants to be in the same conversation as its august competition.  (In a very HBO touch, the show was renewed for a second season before its premiere had even aired.)

In classic cable fashion, Boss is a character study with a very dark figure at its center.  The millieu is Chicago politics, and in Farhad Safinia’s script (he wrote Mel Gibson’s Mayan picture Apocalypto), that figure is the city’s Mayor, Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer).  Kane has a terrible secret, which we find out in the opening scene:  he’s suffering from a degenerative and incurable disease that will lead to hallucinations, depression and gradually the inability to function and then death, all in 3-5 years.  Having learned this, Kane sets out implacably to make sure that no one–not his distant wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen), not even his most trusted aides Kitty (Kathleen Robertson) and Ezra (Martin Donovan)–finds out.  He’s going to retain his control of city government until it’s torn from his cold dead hands.
And those hands are pretty cold and dead already.  Boss isn’t one of those shows that finds charm or even ambiguity in the corrupt process of governance; in Safinia’s hands, Kane is extremely skilled at manipulating and bullying all those around him to his will, and it’s an ugly process to watch.  In the pilot, a planned expansion of O’Hare Airport is threatened when workers go public with a Native American archeological find under an excavated cemetery, and we see Kane ruthlessly bend the contractor and city council to his will, while in his spare time he smiles at the state’s Governor even as he plans to throw a proxy into the race against him.  We’ve all been spoiled, of course, by Aaron Sorkin and his dazzling way around complex intellectual and moral issues, as well as the brilliantly complex plotting and writing of David Simon’s series about American cities, but it would be nice if Safinia had even a trace of a sense of humor about any of this.
At least in the pilot, that goes for the entire tone of Boss.  Grammer works tremendously hard to eradicate all trace of Frasier Crane from his portrayal of Kane, and he’s successful to a fault:  Kane is so grim and dead-eyed in his machinations that it’s hard to see how he could get elected.  The pilot was directed by Gus Van Sant with the same note of funereal seriousness (aside from a quick sex scene so stylized it becomes unintentionally funny).  The show as a whole needs to lighten up just a bit.
But with a full season to go and another to come, Boss has plenty of time to find a comfortable tone.  Safinia has an assortment of juicy storylines in hand, including Kane’s estranged daughter (Hannah Ware) with a drug problem, an aide with sex issues and a reporter on Kane’s trail.  For the most part, the narrative is handled smoothly (there’s one weirdly over-the-top scene where Kane’s minions convince his doctor not to talk about his illness that seems to come from another genre).  The show’s problems are fixable:  while Grammer is pushing too hard to be dour, he’s unquestionably commanding and obviously has the ability to let a touch of sunshine into his performance.  The supporting cast is also more than capable of showing more than they do in the first hour, considering that performers like Nielsen, Robertson and Donovan inhabit the roles.  
Boss needs to breathe a little bit; quality television doesn’t have to be this much work.  (Whatever HBO may profess, it really is still TV.)  Off the bat, it’s a sophisticated, smart piece of work that has plenty of potential to stand with the shows that have influenced it most.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."