Kesley Grammer is not Frasier. Not this time. He’s not Sideshow Bob, either, or any other iteration of his typecast effete, high-culture persona.
Here he’s every bit Mayor Tom Kane, the cruel, abusive master of all of Chicago. He swells with a sort of regal corruption. He launches into monologues as lengthy and articulate as anything on West Wing, but seeped in cynicism instead of idealism. He’s an angry rottweiler of a boss — foaming, screaming, barking, growling at underlings, tearing to shreds anyone who finds themselves at cross-purposes and within arm’s reach. In Kane’s Chicago, everyone is within arm’s reach.
He also, in the series’ first scene, shows a vulnerability that contrasts powerfully with all that. Kane, almost trembling with a mix of rage and fear, listens to a doctor describe the degenerative neurological disease that will gradually take his coordination, then his competence, then his life.
Grammer is fantastic. Yes, his character is exaggerated. Yes, the show is pulpy (there’s a gift of severed ears in the pilot). But that’s the best part. Flawed dramas die if they’re boring. They become can’t-look-away when they’re over-the-top.
And Boss is flawed. Besides Grammer’s impressive performance, the show lacks a center — sub-plots are woven in haphazardly, rarely in a way that furthers the main plot. Kane’s degenerative disease and accompanying visual and audio cues portraying mental static interrupt the tight pacing of the political scenes.
Worse, many of the other characters feel like echoes of the same archetype. That’s the problem, at the core. Drama works best by illuminating contrasts in characters: contrasts in styles, goals, attitudes, speeds, worldviews. It could be good versus evil or idealism versus cynicism or relaxed versus uptight.
But so many of Boss’s political characters are shades of Kane.
While nobody else gives Grammer’s performance, they’re all prone to the same backstabbing, bluster, temper tantrums, pride and Machiavellian maneuvers. (The rest — Kane’s nurse, his daughter, an investigative reporter — are bland nothings.)
For Kane to be the dominating force, a one-of-a-kind colossus, he can’t be surrounded by facsimiles. He needs rivals, a nemesis, a team of gold-hearted heroes raring to unseat him. Exaggerate them, too. Make them the soap-opera cartoons that fuel this sort of guilty-pleasure genre. But most all, make them individually distinct and memorable. Right now, only the boss is.
(Starz, Fridays, 10 pm)
Hell On Wheels
AMC snorts ambition every morning. It swaggers in and throws down shows like TV has never seen — Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead. They stick to their showrunners, even when they’re clearly loony, as with The Killing. Now, they’re fixin’ to serve up a Western — one a whole lot pulpier than Deadwood. The buzz has been mixed — but you know what? AMC doesn’t care what you think. (AMC, Premieres Sunday, 10 pm)
Both Once Upon a Time and Grimm premiered to surprisingly good ratings. Fairytales — after centuries, still have their fans. Grimm gives us a detective investigating crimes eerily similar to fairytales. The gritty and gory stories burst with humor, though never of the intentional kind. A future episode, perhaps: The dish runs away with the spoon — then both are tortured and murdered by the jealous knife. (NBC, Fridays, 9 pm)
Former spy Michael Westen is … well, doing pretty much the same thing as he usually does. USA’s dramas are so light, fluffy, and unchanging that eventually they just sort of float away and disappear. (USA, Thursdays, 10 pm)