Starz freshman drama "Boss" steams into its season finale Friday following an episode last week that was its most intense episode so far, one that underscored more than ever the brutal nature of mayor Tom Kane's "by any means necessary" grip on Chicago.

Ware"Boss" itself has already been promised re-election by Starz, which committed to a second season of the skein before the series even launched in October. While the storytelling has occasionally been spotty and the same-night viewership spottier, the paybler has little reason to worry itself with second thoughts.

Grammer's performance in the title role has never been anything less than riveting, and that's not saying enough about it. Arguably, not since James Gandolfini on "The Sopranos" has there been such bear-hug brutality on the smallscreen. You know intellectually that Kane is practically ego and evil incarnate — the show practically mocks you by, just as you're falling for Kane's humanity, having him act more despicably — but you can't stop being invested in his fate, and you know you haven't hit the limit. For all the other antiheroes flowering on TV in recent years, Grammer's work as Kane is still a rare treat, and easily his best screen role since "Frasier" retired in 2004.

DonovanThe supporting cast has been strong as well, though I'd direct my special accolades to Martin Donovan as Kane's top consigliere Ezra Stone, the perfect calm counterpoint to Kane. And any show that brings in "Hill Street Blues" star Daniel J. Travanti (here playing a city power broker) gets points on my scorecard.

Kane and Co. are shot in a distinctively intimate style filled with more closeups than you've ever seen on a TV show, a style that might make you groan at times but overall is winning in how deeply it involves you. Similarly, the many plot twists have largely if not completely held up — I have to nod to some moments of preposterous violence, such as the torturous murder of an alderman, and laughably timed sex, with Hannah Ware and Kathleen Robertson particularly victimized by the latter.

All fall, Showtime's "Homeland" has overshadowed "Boss" among pay cable's new series, not without reason. Despite its own occasional stumbles (Who thought it was a good idea for Claire Danes to say Sunday, "This isn't my first polka"?), "Homeland" is a richer feast that has gained fans over time. In fact, unimpressive audience numbers for "Boss" (a combined 631,000 viewers tuned in for two airings of Friday's episode) have had some wondering whether Starz might renege on the commitment it made to a second season.

However, when aggregate viewing is taken into account, "Boss" through its first five episodes averaged 1.6 million viewers per episode over the course of a given week, leaving aside viewing on-demand or on other Starz/Encore channels. For Starz, those are satisfactory numbers at this stage of the game.

It's hard for me to see "Boss" as a disappointment. Despite the occasional gratuitous flares, this is essentially a compelling cerebral series on a network that's practically obscure when it comes to scripted drama (aside from a franchise like "Spartacus," which doesn't exactly scream out the same target audience). If the long-term plan to build scripted drama at Starz, you need a show like "Boss," not as an end in itself, but as a means to that end.

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