Episode Title: "Listen"
Writer: Farhad Safinia
Director: Gus Van Sant
In Chicago, no one holds more power than the city's mayor, Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer). But how long can Kane retain his position while suffering from a disease that will kill him in five years?
In an abandoned factory, Tom Kane meets in secret with his neurologist, Dr Ella Harris (Karen Aldridge) as she gives him the bad news about his condition. And it's really bad, complete with the coming loss of his mental facilities and eventually his death within five years. He impatiently asks for a list of drugs to help counter the effects and then curtly dismisses Harris when she suggests support groups and involving his family in the decision making process. While being driven away, Kane seems to experience a number of emotions before reciting a speech to himself. Upon arriving at a campaign event for Governor McCall Cullen (Francis Guinan), Tom checks in with his personal aide, Kitty O'Neil (Kathleen Robertson).
To the surprise of Governor Cullen, Kane gives a fiery endorsement speech for Cullen that likens him to the defenders of virtue from the past. The crowd eats it up and wildly cheers when Kane hands the podium over to the Governor. Meanwhile, near O'Hare airport, a group of construction workers begin relocating coffins from a burial ground to make way for an expansion of the airport. At his office, Kane gets a call from Cullen thanking him for the speech. And while the two men are cordial over the phone, as soon as they hang up, Cullen tells his aide that he needs to know exactly how Kane is coming after him.
Back in Kane's office, senior adviser Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) briefs Kane on Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner), the young State Treasurer who has been speaking out against Cullen. Kane then dismisses Stone so he can try to call his estranged daughter, Emma Kane (Hannah Ware), who works at a free clinic for an Episcopal church. However, Emma doesn't interrupt her time with her patients to take his call. She assists a young man named Darius (Rotimi Akinosho) and his sick uncle, and she overhears him seemingly talking about a drug deal over the phone.
At a local school, Tom's wife Meredith Kane (Connie Nielsen) makes a public appearance with the students. And while there, the reporters get wind of the deplorable condition of the school and begin making that the centerpiece of their stories about Meredith's visit. At the construction site/former graveyard, the workers discover what appears to be a Native American site buried below the graves. Later, Kane meets with Zajac and he is impressed enough by the young man to encourage him to run in the primary against Cullen. He even brings Zajac to the roof of the building so that Cullen's spies can see them together smiling.
Kane is then alerted by his staff that Moco Ruiz (Joe Minoso) is on live television speaking about the potential archaeological find below the graveyard. Elsewhere, a reporter named Sam Miller (Troy Garity) reveals to Dr. Harris that he knows that Kane has seen her recently, but she immediately shows him the door and refuses to talk. In his office, Kane takes a meeting with one of the airport expansion's backers and he practically rips the man's ear off to illustrate his anger over the burial ground situation. Later, Meredith Kane meets with a city official about getting the school fixed… but not out of compassion. Instead, she just wants it fixed so it can't make her look bad.
As a way of staying ahead of the story, Kane takes a meeting with local Native American tribes about the archaeological find in front of the press. But in private, Kane and his advisers plot a way to get complete oversight of the site by attaching it to a trash amendment at the next city counsel meeting. At a round of golf, the politician whom Kane browbeat has Ruiz taken into the woods by his thugs. Elsewhere, Cullen learns about Zajac's alliance with Kane and he reacts by throwing his aide's iPad into the brush. At the city counsel meeting, Kane's trash amendment hits opposition over his attempt to get control over the burial ground. But Kane leaves them in session until they come to an agreement.
Later, Kane is briefed about his strategy to take down Cullen and he also learns about Sam Miller's attempts to dig up information on him. Even though Dr. Harris rejected Miller's attempt to speak with her, Kane sends over one of his thugs to "remind her" not to brake her Hippocratic oath, leaving her in tears when her young son finds her. At an awards gala, Ruiz arrives with his head heavily bandaged as he gives a present to Kane. When Kane opens the box later that night, we see that they contain Ruiz's ears, which he then drops in the garbage disposal.
We also see that Tom and his wife have no love for each other, but he still vainly hopes that his daughter will call him back even as she seems to be in no hurry to do so. Kane also learns that his garbage gambit has failed. And since the bill didn't pass, the sanitation workers will go on strike in the morning.
The least surprising thing about "Boss" is Kelsey Grammer's performance. If you've ever seen Grammer on "Cheers" or "Frasier" then you should already know that the man has incredible comedic skills. But in "Boss," Grammer gets to demonstrate his more dramatic side and it's equally as impressive as his earlier TV roles. Tom Kane appears to be a character with a lot of potential. If Vic Mackey was Tony Soprano as a cop, then think of Tom Kane as Mayor Tony Soprano.
Kane is certainly a gift that Grammer seems destined to enjoy. In the pilot episode alone, we get to see Kane's inner emotions briefly appear on his face when he's alone as well as the jovial persona he puts on for the public. We also see an incredibly violent side of Kane as he wields his power behind closed doors. In short, Kane is a man to be reckoned with and none of his enemies have an answer for his ruthlessness.
Grammer's best moments in the pilot come early in the show when he has the backseat of his car to himself and we see him experience despair and other fleeting emotional states in response to his diagnosis before he puts on his game face at the campaign event. Even Kane's pro-Cullen speech was exceptionally well delivered and I could easily believe that Grammer was a seasoned politician. Some of what Kane does is over-the-top, but he represents everything we love and fear about our politicians. He's the great man of the people when he's in front of the cameras. But behind closed doors, Kane is only out for himself.
Despite the fact that Governor Cullen is barely in the episode, he comes off as an even bigger douche than Kane. Despite their public alliance, the animosity between these two probably goes back some time. One of the funniest moments came from Cullen's "WTF?!" response to Kane's campaign speech near the beginning, as well as Cullen's almost savage treatment of his aide and the way he tossed the tablet into the brush. In a way, I'd be more frightened to have this guy as a governor than Kane as a mayor. Neither Cullen or Kane are people we'd vote for if we saw them for who they really are. But of the two, Kane may be the lesser of two evils.
Kane's ear fixation produced the two of the most over-the-top scenes of the episode, first with his ear grabbing in the office and later when Ruiz literally gives him his ears. Ripping a man's ears off seems a little extreme when there are any number of other ways he could have intimidated Ruiz to fall in line. Up to that point, I could believe in Kane's world. But that sent things off into more cartoonish territory.
There's actually a terrific use of CGI when Kane is on the rooftop with Zajac and for a few moments we see old Chicago before the skyscrapers went up. It was a quiet moment of exposition, but it added a layer of history to the city itself and made "Boss" feel like it was just the latest chapter of Chicago's story.
The biggest misstep of the pilot was the storyline regarding Kane's daughter, Emma; who didn't seem to have much to do beyond her fascination (or attraction) to the drug dealer, Darius. Every time the camera cut away from Kane to Emma's story, it felt like the action was taking place in an entirely different series… one which was devoid of life. Maybe Hannah Ware will surprise us in later episodes, but for now she and Rotimi Akinosho are the weak links in an otherwise impressive cast.
Another issue facing "Boss" is that it is lacking the hook that will bring us back to the show week after week. Sure, Grammer is great in the role, but who wants to watch a conflict over garbage trucks and burial grounds play out over eight weeks? I kept waiting for the show to hit a home run with a twist that would make the series into something special… but it never came.
Thus far, "Boss" is off to a solid start. But I'm not convinced that it will remain a compelling series over the course of eight episodes. Part of that reason is that there doesn't seem to be anyone on the cast who can match Grammer for intensity. He may be able to chew scenery with the best of actors, but if Grammer is the only one getting a chance to flex his wings then "Boss" could get old very quickly.
Crave Online Rating: 8 out of 10.