It’s one thing to know where the bodies are buried and another to know how to use that information. The best dramas about political thugs - and they are a fascinating breed - show us the behind-the scenes payoffs, blackmail schemes and turns of the screw that a politico uses to wield his power. So far the new Starz series Boss, with Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane, the corrupt mayor of Chicago (I guess Chicago is so used to charges of corruption, using its real name isn’t even an insult) comes through with those sinister, twisty plots.
But already Kane is putting on a baseball cap and scoring illegal drugs in order to keep his secret. That seems excessively lurid. Kane’s family life begins with cliche. His marriage has deteriorated to the point where his wife (Connie Nielsen) is just political window dressing. In episode 1 we can only guess why she’s so hostile. And he is estranged from his grown daughter, who happens to be a minister and may have a drug problem; now they’re just shoveling on the ironies.
It’s much more fun to watch him toy with the citizens who elected him. One of his first acts is to set up a rival candidate to the Governor he has just publicly supported, and make certain that the rival – the handsome state’s Treasurer – won’t squirm out of his grasp.
The first episode is directed by Gus Van Sant (yeah, I was surprised, too), who doesn’t usually leave fingerprints on his more mainstream work. That’s generally true here, although you can see his intelligent deliberation is the knockout opening scene, when Kane hears his diagnosis in an extremely unlikely setting, and the camera slowly moves in on a face taking in the worst news while barely blinking. That’s the kind of impact the series should consistently have, but like Kane, Boss is dangerously close to losing control.
Of course, it has time to grow stronger: Starz has renewed the show for a second season, even before its premiere tonight.