The role of Kane lets Grammer present his dramatic bona fides and put his 'Frasier' (and, er, 'Hank') personas to rest, and he's so good as the driven politician that he alone is almost reason enough to tune in.
The problem is, the show that's been built around the actor (who's also a producer on the project) isn't nearly as interesting as what Grammer brings to the screen, and the sluggish pacing and melodramatic excesses of 'Boss' could put off those drawn in by the actor's confident star turn.
The opening scene of the 'Boss' pilot is the first of several silent moments that Grammer plays masterfully. The politician is being told that he is suffering from a debilitating and irreversible neurological condition, one that will affect him physically and mentally until it brings about his death within a few years. Kane's demeanor speaks volumes, and after the doctor leaves, his silent grief and rage are fascinating. It's when the character speechifies to the doctor just before her exit that you begin to wish that 'Boss' had left well enough alone.
But leaving well enough alone is not something 'Boss' tends to do; if it thinks a point is worth making, it makes it a several more times than is absolutely necessary. 'Boss' appears to want to be a gritty urban soap opera with an undertow of Shakespearean themes, but at times (especially when Grammer isn't on the screen), it comes off as a pretentious and unsophisticated imitation of 'The Wire.'
At one point, a seasoned political operative speaks this line to her former mentor: "Kane is the city, and everything we do that is good for the city come from the fact that he has the power to do it." All I could think about after hearing that thudding clunker was the one-word, foulmouthed reply that Clay Davis, 'The Wire's' entertainingly amoral politician, no doubt would have fired back.
There are a couple of quietly good performers in the supporting cast, not that they're given much to do in the first few episodes of this eight-part series (which has already been renewed for a second season by Starz). Connie Nielsen is laudably restrained in her limited role as the mayor's chilly wife, with whom he has a barely civil relationship, and as Kane's top adviser, Martin Donovan exudes the world-weary yet alert vibe of a career political operative.
Kathleen Robertson, however, is wasted in a one-dimensional role as one of Kane's fixers, and the show's iffy momentum generally comes to a full stop whenever 'Boss' focuses on Kane's daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware), who works as a minister in a low-income community. That vague story line and Ware's generally sleepy performance could be cut from the show and it'd be better for it.
Momentum, or lack thereof, is the biggest problem here; episodes clock in at over 50 minutes but they feel much longer. 'Boss' needs to build up concrete stakes and pay off specific story lines in every episode, but the drama's lack of consistent energy and focus in those areas often makes the whole enterprise feel like a meandering series of politically-minded theories and set pieces strung together by the sheer force of Grammer's presence.
Grammer's always been good at playing stentorian characters, which means that the speeches Kane makes when he's not manipulating his enemies behind the scenes are generally interesting to watch, and even Kane's wife shows on occasion that she's a very savvy political player. But too often, characters make speeches at each other instead of conversing like normal people, and too often, supporting characters consist of one or two identifiable traits and that's about it. (I might add that too often, extraneous topless women are inserted into the action mainly because this is Starz and hey, they can show nekked ladies!)
Though Kane's political machinations are occasionally interesting, the visual tics of Gus Van Sant, who directed the pilot and appeared to influence the look of subsequent episodes, might be an acquired taste for viewers not attuned to his use of odd angles and weird close-ups. Visually speaking, 'Boss' made me nostalgic for 'The Chicago Code,' a similar but better show that used Chicago locations far more compellingly than 'Boss' does.
When 'Boss' doesn't try too hard, as is the case in a story line about a reporter who's digging into Kane's dirty deals, it's watchable and occasionally displays a decent amount of intelligence and energy. But whether the series as a whole will consistently rise to the the level of Grammer's performance is very much an open question.
Note: The first full episode of 'Boss' can be seen below and at the Starz site.
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