"Boss" labors under the weight of familiar political-movie cliches, offsetting its polished look -- and Gus Van Sant's unorthodox direction of the pilot -- with a been-there, seen-that feel.
Politicians are held in such low regard that building a drama around City Hall shenanigans — especially in Chicago — feels like an uphill campaign. Taking a detour from Starz’s recent blood-and-sci-fi leanings, “Boss” certainly creates a showy role for star/producer Kelsey Grammer as a ruthless Windy City mayor diagnosed with a debilitating disease, adding a “Breaking Bad,” nothing-to-lose quality to his serialized story. Still, the show labors under the weight of familiar political-movie cliches, offsetting its polished look — and Gus Van Sant’s unorthodox direction of the pilot — with a been-there, seen-that feel.Using intense close-ups, Van Sant, working from Farhad Safinia’s script, zooms in tight on Grammer’s Mayor Tom Kane as he receives the grim news, giving him three to five years, ballpark, before he’s incapacitated by an incurable condition. Frankly, it would help if we knew a bit more about Kane before the diagnosis, other than the fact he’s a Daley-like power-broker and accomplished philanderer, living in a marriage of political convenience with his stately wife (“Gladiator’s” Connie Nielsen), and estranged from his grown daughter (Hannah Ware). Instead, we get to know him as he orchestrates a gubernatorial run by an ambitious young pol (Jeff Hephner) against the seasoned incumbent (Francis Guinan), for reasons that — four episodes in — remain murky. What sort of legacy, exactly, is Kane hoping to secure? In the interim, there’s a lot of the requisite pay-cable doings, from sex and nudity to drug use and, yes, some mob-like violence. Grammer’s Kane, for instance, faced with the threat of a sanitation-pickup stoppage, gets to snap off lines like, “Let the streets run with shit.” It’s all played solidly enough, though so many elements seem plucked from other fare — including the investigative reporter (Troy Garity) on Kane’s trail — the show struggles to distinguish itself. And frankly, presenting a journalist in what appears to be a semi-heroic mode, even in support, feels oh-so-1970s. Although one hates to dissuade Starz from heading down this stately path after it looked as if every program might have “Spartacus” in the title, the bottom line is that “The Wire,” “The West Wing” and even “Boardwalk Empire” have set the bar for this sort of material quite high. Moreover, there’s almost no humor in the previewed episodes to balance the sense of a show taking itself a bit too seriously — or to reflect the absurdity of indicted Illinois real-life pols, including ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Grammer needn’t prove his considerable chops run a lot deeper than “Frasier,” and while he’s easily the biggest name in the cast, it’s generally a firstrate ensemble. Starz made some news by agreeing to a second season prior to the premiere, which is sort of like picking out office decor before the voters have had their say. Like Chicago politics, though, prestige drama is a rough-and-tumble world. If Starz truly wants to compete in the toga-free game over the long run, it’s going to need candidates with slightly stronger appeal than “Boss.”