'Boss'

 Chuck Hodes

You can look back at the history of any number of storied cable channels and pick the series that truly set them on the right course -- the series that made them players. For HBO, it was The Sopranos; for Showtime, it was Dexter; for FX, it was The Shield; and for AMC, it was Mad Men.

Other series might have received as much critical acclaim, and still others would get higher ratings. But those were game-changers. And now Starz has its channel-defining series in Boss, a wholly impressive new drama that comes out of the gate with gravitas, swagger, originality and intrigue. It's the kind of series that truly puts Starz on the map (and if it makes two or three others, it will be a highly competitive three-way race in the pay cable field).

Boss is full of revelations. It stars Kelsey Grammer in a stunning, eye-opening dramatic turn as Tom Kane, the ruthless mayor of Chicago -- a modern King Lear with a crushing secret. The last time an actor known for sitcoms took the television world completely by surprise was Bryan Cranston, and he went on to win three consecutive Emmys for best actor and turn Breaking Bad into a show everybody talked about and fawned over.

Grammer is in nearly every scene of Boss, and he's superb in all of them. The other main revelation is the arrival of Farhad Safinia, who created the series and wrote the first two episodes (here's hoping he writes a lot more). Safinia announces himself here in much the same way Matthew Weiner and Vince Gilligan did with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, respectively. Safinia co-wrote the 2006 feature Apocalypto and has two movies in production.

Boss, which kicks off with a beautiful directorial stamp from Gus Van Sant, is filmed on location in Chicago and squats down immediately into the ugly internal machinations of politics. It's a little like The West Wing in a bloody street brawl, with a lot more swearing and nudity and minus the adoration for what politics can be at its aspirational best.

Screw that, Boss says. Politics as a triumphant idea might have been a great forum for Aaron Sorkin to write soliloquies about tough choices and moral righteousness, but Boss strips it down to the ugly truth. Nobody is happy unless they win at all costs, ethics and morality take a beating when you're trying to please constituents and stay elected, and people who seek power and then use it like a sword aren't halo-wearing types. Which, by the way, makes a great backbone for a series. Safinia has gone beyond the obvious (Chicago? That's like shooting fish in a barrel, right?) by sticking Grammer's Kane in a brilliant predicament right from the outset.

He has just been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disorder, and minor but haunting intimations of the symptoms are starting to appear. At first, only he notices -- and Grammer is never better, aghast at the arrival of the horrors that will progress slowly but relentlessly and strip everything from him. This is the beauty of Boss and where it steps lightly out from the King Lear shadow. It's the knowing upfront what is happening to him, from the opening scenes of the series, that shapes Kane's every action.

Boss is helped immensely by a strong, balanced cast. Connie Nielsen is engaging as Meredith Kane, who puts up with her husband primarily because she's as icily calculating and ambitious as he. Martin Donovan and Kathleen Robertson are superb as Kane's senior advisers. As Ezra Stone, Donovan gives you the impression he's executing the mayor's orders and mopping up his messes but also keeping something close to the vest. Robertson, who is also quite adept at comedy (IFC's The Business, among others), plays tough and calculating but also ramps up the sexuality as she has an affair with state treasurer Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner). All of this is being followed by Sam Miller (Troy Garity), a newspaper reporter writing the mother of all stories on Kane.

On a personal level, the Kanes have long since cut ties with their daughter Emma (Hannah Ware), a recovering addict balancing between religion and the temptation of her drug dealer, Darius (Rotimi Akinosho, notable in his acting debut). Everywhere you look, there's potential being realized on this show.

Boss is the kind of series that seems to have the "it" factor from the opening credits. High-quality emerging series often announce themselves with authority, so it's clear Starz has something special here. The premium cable channel reportedly has 17 million subscribers, about a million shy of Showtime, which in turn trails HBO by more than 10 million. That means Boss can make a real difference, not only by being a show people absolutely need to see but also by luring more creative producers to Starz.

Airdate 10 p.m. Fridays (Starz)

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