A concealed disease. Crazy yelling at the office. A cold, dead marriage. Aides screwing in a stairwell. Ears in a box.
Basically, all of the good political drama clichés can be found in “Boss,” a new Starz series that can be watched online at Starz.com. The show is about Chicago mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer), who is diagnosed with a rare degenerative illness and continues to run a corrupt regime and make political power-grabs. His marriage is loveless and emotionally over, and his minister daughter refuses to talk to him; but he sure knows how to get things done. From executing undercover deals to undermining the incumbent governor’s campaign, Kane is the epitome of the corrupt Chicago mayor.
Sure, it’s clichéd. From the advertisements, you can already guess that it will be the kind of show that makes you lose all faith in politics—and, you know, humanity. Kane yells and manipulates, and then later gives moving speeches as he accepts awards for his mayoral tenure. The show seems to address little about the ideology of politics and instead focuses on the structures of power in politics, from race to business to electoral math. The writing style plays into these stereotypes with its quick dialogue and constant movement—it may as well be “The West Wing” in a twisted, corrupt, awful world.
But it has a few surprises—namely, Kane’s daughter Emma (Hannah Ware), who is still a mystery by the end of the pilot. She appears to be a rebellious daughter working in a free clinic while her father runs the city. But, by the end, we learn more about her and her mysterious motivations.
Kane’s diagnosis, which begins the series, is also an interesting twist. The all-powerful mayor is immediately given a flaw, which he conceals from almost everyone close to him. We see his internal turmoil as he attempts to continue his routine, but knows that things may be changing soon. Aides and family members begin to suspect something, but Kane maintains a calm demeanor.
The style, steered in the pilot by Gus Van Sant, director of films such as Milk and Good Will Hunting, is not what you would expect. It’s shaky, almost documentary-like, and it beautifully depicts certain interior moments. When Kane has tremors of his hand and eye, Van Sant uses extreme close-ups and quick cuts. The directing takes the show away from many previous political dramas that showed stability and power in their framing of events. Rather, the style adds to the chaos and turmoil.
The acting is also noteworthy. Kelsey Grammar, who will always be everyone’s friendly neighborhood Frasier, does a good job of immediately establishing the stature of Kane. He may not be likable at the beginning of the series, but hopefully this will develop over time. The supporting actors are also strong, especially the roles of Emma Kane and Kane’s advisers. The fast-paced deliveries and quick writing make it enjoyable and thrilling, even if the audience is not sure how to feel about the characters.
So, yes, “Boss” is every cliché that you expect it to be. It uses most of the classic tropes of corrupt politics. But it’s enjoyable in its extremes. After all, who doesn’t love a good ear in a box?