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Kelsey Grammer Takes Charge in 'Boss,' But the Rest of the Show Needs Work

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 19th 2011 3:30PM
It's easy to see why Kelsey Grammer took the lead role in 'Boss' (10PM ET Friday, Starz). For almost any actor, the role of Mayor Tom Kane would be the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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 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 comes 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.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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your all high! this show is Great! nuff said

November 11 2011 at 6:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Totally disagree with the review. Just like Grammar's Frasier character, you think too much! Just enjoy it!

October 22 2011 at 4:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
random boy

The mere fact that Maureen liked the insipid and painfully derived "Chicago Code" is proof enough that her critique is ill-informed. Going a step beyond to label the artistry of the show's aesthetics as "weird" also shows a lack of taste. The look of the show is crisp, unique, at times haunting, and brought to you by a twice Academy Award nominated director. It's obvious that Maureen's cup of tea is made up of procedural dramas (Chicago Code, CSI, NCIS, they're all the same), but for those of us that appreciate smart television, her opinion is clearly moot.

October 20 2011 at 2:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to random boy's comment
George Otwori

The Chicago Code was an experiment to bring back complex crime drama back to broadcast. On the surface it was a standard Crime Procedural. The first season was a sample which was going to hook unassuming viewers with light mythology. Season 2 as Shawn Ryan said would brought in heavier mythology. It was in the hands of Shawn Ryan (The Shield, Terriers)

Boss like The Killing season 1 episodes 1-3 and Dexter season 1-2 is riding on good critical acclaim that acknowledges its flaws. If is unwilling to truly exceed it ambitions it needs to better paced. Shows like The Killing and Dexter ran themselves into ground when the writers and producers are unwilling to be humble and take time to improve what they built. Boss has potential right now it but it seriously needs to take a clue from great show like The Wire, The Sopranos and The Shield.

October 25 2011 at 1:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nancy Martin

You couldn't pay me to watch anything with this guy in the lead role. They say there's no hint of Frasier Crane in the character. From what I've seen, this character is more like Kelsey himself, a mean, egotistical, nasty SOB.

October 19 2011 at 7:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Nancy Martin's comment

ok, I won't.

October 22 2011 at 4:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I like BOSS, the potential is Great. It's not even on the air yet and it's getting good reviews. I think the writers & producers are fine tuning the show which is why they release it online almost 2 weeks before the schedule broadcast. I think on 3rd episode onwards we can expect something a lot better than the 1st ep.

BTW I do watch Fraiser religiously but when I watch Grammer in Boss there's not even a hint of Fraiser Crane to be seen. If you think that's an easy feat to accomplish you should watch Matthew Perry in almost everything post Friends. If he keeps this up, I can see an emmy nomination knocking at the door.

October 19 2011 at 7:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo how many episodes of Boss have you seen? Is it possible the writers could address your concerns in future episodes?

October 19 2011 at 3:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to TAUSIF's comment
Craig Ranapia

I don't see why not - Bill Lawrence was obviously paying attention to feedback on 'Cougar Town' and re-worked the show from pretty meh-some star vehicle to a nice ensemble show. It sounds like "Boss' has good bones but, to use a gymnastics term, isn't sticking the landing as well as it should.

October 19 2011 at 4:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

This sounds a lot like "Lie to Me' - another show that I thought had a lot of potential, but was enormously frustrating because while it's all very nice to have a "star" anchoring a show you've got to give them a solid ensemble - and storytelling - to work with, otherwise they might as well be doing Alan Bennett Talking Heads-style monologues straight to camera.

October 19 2011 at 3:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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