Boss, a US TV drama that has just premiered in Britain, focuses on the political manoeuverings of the Mayor of Chicago and his opponents. But it smacks more of The Sopranos than the West Wing, with a bit of King Lear thrown in. It is a portrait of the politician as a gangster and of the gangster as tragic hero.
This mayor is prone to violent rages and violent revenge. It is politics without idealism or scruples – the mayor’s chief adviser is straight out of Machiavelli.
There’s a lot to admire in the show, not least a riveting central performance from one of the most irritating of sitcom actors – Kelsey Grammer, aka Dr Frasier Crane. To see him leap out of the rut he has inhabited for the last 20 years is a joy.
Grammer plays the titular character. The twist is that he has just been diagnosed with dementia, but is determined to conceal this fact – and hold on to power – regardless of the consequences.
Boss is produced by the American cable-TV channel Starz. Until now its most successful series has been the entertaining but trashy Spartacus. It paid a lot of money to acquire the rights to Boss, in what looked like a conscious effort to give itself a more cultured veneer.
But despite critical acclaim its audiences were too small even by cable-TV standards, and it was cancelled after two seasons.
The show certainly has its weaknesses. The most obvious is the one dimensionality of the female characters who come across as mere ciphers.
And judging from the first episode, the focus on City Hall tends to downplay the importance of wider social forces. But that could change – there is a tantalising shot of an Occupy! protest in the title sequence that promises more.
Boss also threatens to collapse under the weight of its own ambition. It attempts to draw on such a rich variety of sources, and fire off in so many directions, it can feel a bit incoherent at times.
But even if it doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise, it looks likely to be a very interesting failure.