Give Kelsey Grammer a chunk of dialogue and stand back.
The man delivers words in such a mellifluous tone he could be reciting a laundry list and you’d be spellbound.
Add director Gus Van Sant and a script by Farhad Safinia (Apocolypto) and what you have is Boss, a searing new political drama by the US Starz network.
Grammer plays Tom Kane, a man who sits stony-faced listening to a grim diagnosis from a neurological specialist. He has a degenerative brain disorder. Not quite Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, but the outlook is bleak. There is no cure and within 3-5 years he will slowly lose complete control of his speech, muscles, endure a loss of memory and require 24 hour care before death takes over.
There are extreme close-ups of the doctor. Her eye, her fingers, her lips. With Kane sitting in an abandoned slaughterhouse, the viewer is immediately intrigued by the location. This is a pretty strange place to be getting a medical diagnosis. But it soon becomes clear that Kane is actually Mayor of Chicago and trying to avoid anybody else learning of his news. Meeting at an old slaughterhouse is the only way he can keep from the news getting out to political enemies, the press, his staff and even his family. And it’s a pretty concise metaphor.
Kane’s staff are political advisor Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) and personal aide Kitty O’Neill (Kathleen Robertson). The quietly-spoken Stone moves within shadows to achieve his outcomes, ready to overlook morality for the sake of reaching a target. O’Neill is a gun, an attractive young woman with a mind full of information and a body willing to take advantage of its ample attributes.
His wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen) plays the part of the mayor’s wife to the hilt, attending local schools with a media crew in tow. More Hilary Clinton than Michelle Obama, she looks set to be a perfumed steamroller, but there is a wall of ice between her and her husband. Tom’s estranged daughter Emma Kane (Hannah Ware) works in an inner city clinic Having turned her back on the public life of her parents, she is at home in a grass-roots environment. I smell a social conscience.
In office Kane has it all, controlling the votes of city council, throwing his weight behind his preferred candidate in the elections for Governor, lording over inept municipal associates like a Shakepearean king. There’s a lot that’s Shakespearean here: a powerful man facing mortality, hefty monologues that are usually left for the stage rather than the small screen (or perhaps The West Wing or Boston Legal), and a mighty performance from the leading man.
Unlike Cheers, Frasier and Back to You, Grammer plays it straight. He relishes the role so much that in the first instalment there’s little opportunity for the ensemble to shine. But he’s also so magical you forgive this shortcoming. Across a series it may prove more problematic. I have the feeling Connie Nielsen is only just warming up…
In Gus Van Sant’s hands, Boss has filmic qualities. He uses hand-held cameras, close-ups and artfully-staged locations to fill his canvas. He plays with the themes of Safinia’s script: corruption, lies, fragility and allows his actors to turn on the subtext.
But when all is said and done, Boss is a vehicle for Kelsey Grammer to show off his acting chops.
And I have no complaints about that.
Boss premieres 8:30pm Wednesday on W.