"Kelsey Grammer makes you forget all about Frasier Crane!" invariably declare the breathless reviews for his new drama series,
Boss, now airing on Starz. Funny, I couldn't stop thinking about him. Last week's premiere, which introduced us to the intersecting public and private lives of a fictional Chicago mayor, was as overcooked as any windbag soliloquy from TV's favorite therapist; only whereas Cheers and Frasier eked two decades of comic mileage out of gently lampooning their character, Boss expects us to genuflect in admiration at its hardcore depiction of contemporary American politics. That the first episode has inspired critics like David Wiegand to marvel at how a series with a protagonist named "Kane" evokes -- of all things -- Citizen Kane suggests the extent of its creative imagination (though, in fairness to Wiegand's own faculties, I don't recall a character named "Lear," so apparently he thought of Shakespeare all by himself).
On a fundamental level, Grammer's Tom Kane carefully follows the Breaking Bad template. In an initially disorienting opening scene that transpires in an abandoned building, an African-American physician informs Hizzoner that the poor bastard has a degenerative brain disorder giving him -- Nielsen ratings pending -- approximately 3-5 years to live. Although it's still early in the game, Kane's narrative trajectory looks to be sort of the inverse of Walter White: Rather than a prognosis that compels a protagonist to discover his manhood (and I write that with more than a hint of irony), Kane's disease, along with the hallucination-inducing meds designed to slow down its effects, has the potential to send a powerful man into a long dark spiral. Or perhaps losing control will liberate him, make him unpredictable, even render his policies soft and sentimental--at least more so than the pivotal sequence involving a botched O'Hare extension plan leading to a pair of severed ears as penance.
Even if Boss proves me wrong with the direction it will take, I'm skeptical that its lead is up to the challenge. Grammer can be a marvelous comic actor, the demons accumulating in his personal life over the years adding unique undercurrents of pathos and autocritique. Boss may have seemed like a natural expansion on Grammer's typecast persona (not to mention, given his political leanings, a crafty and cynical send-up of the Chicago machine that has spawned the likes of Daley and Obama). Strange, then, how i
n rare dramatic roles he comes across as puzzlingly limited. His depiction of Kane's physical and mental malfunctions -- finger drumming, talking to himself -- lacks the spontaneity James Gandolfini offered Tony Soprano's scary freakouts and sublime epiphanies. Inevitably, he overcompensates by screaming.
Needless to say, both Gandolfini and Bryan Cranston had/have memorable supporting casts to take the burden off their still-considerable shoulders. "Listen," the title of the Boss premiere, showed little promise for a mostly blank ensemble; and the faces that do register, like Connie Nielsen as Kane's estranged wife and Chicago's first lady, are alloted little to do beyond clenched smiles and cliched speeches about the need to "keep up appearances." (Gus Van Sant directs the episode with mostly anonymous touches as well, other than a ludicrous stairwell sex scene between
Kane's honey-bunny aide Kitty O'Neill [played by young Meg Ryan lookalike Kathleen Robertson]
and implausibly boyish gubernatorial candidate Alex Zajac [Jeff Hephner]). Watching Boss made me pine, once again, for a glimpse of what Hunter Thompson called "politics junkies," a sense of the adrenaline high that lures animals like Kane into the public arena in the first place. Like all heavy-handed dramatizations of political corruption, Boss blows a lot of hot air in purporting to rip the lid off what everyone already knows. It may be true, but that doesn't make it interesting.