Sex, Drugs, Chicago

Kelsey Grammer is the mayor of the Windy City in the nakedly ambitious new show Boss.

Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane in Boss.
Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane in Boss

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Starz, the second-tier premium channel, is the home of the nimble catering comedy Party Down, the semi-ensorcelling nonsense of Camelot, and, of course, the Spartacus franchise, all hardcore peplum and softcore smut. They haven’t been taking themselves too seriously over there. It’s as if the chintziness of the z in the name set a certain tone. But after two years on the job, the company’s CEO, Chris Albrecht, is ready to wow ‘em. Before being fired by HBO, Albrecht greenlit and oversaw Oz, The Sopranos, and The Wire, among other televisual landmarks. Now comes his first Starz drama with artistic ambitionz.

Boss (Fridays at 10 p.m. ET), a charismatic political drama, is foremost about hubris. Kelsey Grammer plays an arrogant chessmaster of a Chicago mayor, prideful and wrathful. Wronged by an alderman or disappointed by the governor, he flies into poetic torrential rages. To what degree are these tantrums motivated by sickness? The mayor learns that he has a degenerative brain disorder in the series’ arresting opening scene: The camera holds on Grammer’s face at excruciating length as he moves through a series of inward stares and numb grimaces. Among the awful laundry lists of symptoms the neurologist mentions is that the mayor will become prone to aggressive outbursts as the disease worsens. But maybe these explosions are just his usual style. Politics is a bloodsport, and the mayor kills for the love of killing.

Series creator Farhad Safinia has given the mayor the name of Tom Kane. Would that be any relation to the best-film-of-all-time Kanes? Yo, Tom, where your Rosebud at? As I say, the show is a study in hubris. Boss is electric with self-importance, and that is in itself is a hoot, given its particular combination of thematic pomp and expressionistic pulp. This is a vision of the politician as gangster and of the gangster as tragic hero.

Boss nakedly aspires to be a Great American TV Show. It isn’t shy about working The Wire’s territory as an urban tale concerning race relations, political corruption, journalistic flop sweat, hard-drug dealerships, and favor-trading labor shadiness. Grammer’s first big speech claims Chicago as the “most American of all cities.” This statement that is very probably true—come and show me another city with lifted head singing, so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning—but it is very heavily freighted. In interviews, the actor is comparing his character to King Lear, and some of his monologues—chewed into with ferocious glee and infectious pleasure—seem to be in iambic pentameter.

Going the way that madness lies, Kane is going it alone. Keeping his medical condition an absolute secret, he scores black-market medication in sidewalk rendezvous. He is estranged from his daughter (played by Hannah Ware), who is a recovering addict and church rector and who is busy wrestling with temptation in the show’s wannest thread. He’s estranged from his wife (Connie Nielsen), too, but they still hang out all the time, for the sake of appearances and of powerbrokering. In lieu of friends, Kane has two aides instructed not to ask about his emotions.

One of these is Ezra Stone, played, by Martin Donovan, as if he were a very elegant combat knife. Stone went to Yale Law, but he must have done his undergraduate work in 16th-century Florence, majoring in poli sci. Machiavelli would much approve of his gamesmanship in undermining the governor as he goes up for re-election. (Elsewhere, the zeal with which Ezra ensures that Kane’s neurologist won’t spill his secret is one of the over-the-top touches that gives the show its character.)

The other courtier and attack animal is Kitty O’Neil (Kathleen Robertson). She has a great head for numbers and a great body for everything. Four episodes in, I’m not sure whether this frosted buttercup is supposed to be a clinical nymphomaniac, a supersonically fast woman, or maybe just a metaphor for power lust. “How much T and A do you want in your pay TV?” Albrecht asked in a GQ profile last year. When it comes to Kitty, one is unsure. Her underwears are lovely—La Perla, maybe?—and in the first episode she contributes to one of the foxier TV hookups in recent memory. Then, in the second, she squanders some erotic capital on a hotel-lobby quickie that boldly defied belief.

Boss knows full well how egregiously silly that sex scene was. When it is time to go over the top, it goes with gusto. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me a moment: The show makes one of its points about crime and punishment by borrowing from the auricle tradition of Blue Velvet and Reservoir Dogs. Let’s hear it for pop grotesquerie as a cutting comment on political life.