Grammer gives an impressive performance as Chicago mayor in ‘Boss’

Starz’s original programming has gained a new series, “Boss.” The show stars Emmy−winner Kelsey Grammer, who plays Tom Kane, Chicago’s corrupt mayor secretly dealing with his declining health. While the series has many strengths and Grammer handles the role admirably, “Boss” falters by prizing melodramatic storytelling over strong characterization.

As Mayor Kane, Grammer is convincing as an old−fashioned political boss. Here, he has none of the uppity charm he mastered in the 11 years he worked on “Frasier” (1993−2004). Kane is a crafty leader who speaks with lyrical grace during his speeches, but makes his assistants and colleagues cower with his strong words behind closed doors.

Kane learns in the first scene that he has a degenerative disorder that will kill him in a few years and leave him brain damaged much sooner. He quickly decides to cover up this diagnosis — predictable for a politician in the practice of covering up his illegal backdoor dealings. The show demonstrates Grammer’s acting prowess; he hints with nuance to Kane’s burden and his struggle to remain strong despite feeling vulnerable.

The isolating force of Kane’s power becomes clear, as he even keeps the news of his impending death from his cold and distant wife Meredith (Connie Nielsen).

The show splits its focus between Kane’s health and his meddling in the race for governor. The storyline proves that “Boss” isn’t afraid to show an unsympathetic side of Kane. Over the course of the election, Kane betrays his friend to support a newcomer, Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner), in an attempt to gain more influence in the governor’s office. Kane’s knowledge of Zajac’s sexual escapades allows him to blackmail Zajac once he takes office. These episodes often feel overdone and take themselves too seriously, and the show as a whole suffers greatly as a result.

“Boss” is at its best when it examines the little details of state and local power struggles, and at its worst and most ridiculous when it throws in violent or sex−filled storylines. It’s as if the writers assumed it needs drugs and nudity because it’s a cable show, so they just threw them into the story with little point.

The most thrilling parts of the show are often the ones that should be the most mundane. Small conversations on campaign buses and city council discussions pose huge problems that could derail Kane. The show would be smart to stick to these over the stereotypical political drama plot mechanisms.

“Boss” features truly beautiful cinematography: It instantly captures the mood of the scene without overshadowing the drama. The polished shots emphasize some of Kane’s bigger speeches and make some of the weaker scenes nice to look at. As with many high−profile cable shows, “Boss” has an eye for detail.

The first episode was directed by Oscar−nominated director Gus Van Sant, and the impressive use of close−up shots captures Kane’s mental state — Sant simultaneously allows viewers to get entrenched in Kane’s character while also giving them a sense of all the other corrupt political actions that are going on around him.

This ambitious show does everything on such a big scale, and has potential to become one of the most intriguing shows to premiere this year, but as of now it’s a mixed bag.

It would serve “Boss” to avoid imitating great cable shows like “The Sopranos” (1999−2007) and “Mad Men.” It needs to find a way to make its tone more consistent and play to its strengths. With such a stellar lead performance and some exceptionally talented people working behind the camera, “Boss” will hopefully find a way to tighten up and create a worthwhile program.