Boss: Kelsey Grammer hams it up in pulp political drama that is gloriously bananas

<span>Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

While desperately trying to be the next Wire or Sopranos, this two-season drama delivered surreal moments and wildly implausible public sex scenes

  • Boss is streaming on Stan in Australia. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

During lockdown, something weird happened. As the months dragged on and I burned through all the TV I would normally watch, I had to start picking shows that I wouldn’t ordinarily go near.

At the same time, prolonged confinement made me a bit loopy.

That’s how I became obsessed with Boss, a political drama that aired on Starz in 2011.

Related: Boss – box set review

Boss stars Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane, the hard-as-nails mayor of Chicago. In the pilot, he is diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease that will leave him vegetative in a few years. The series follows Tom as he tries to keep his grip on Chicago’s political machine while hiding his worsening symptoms from those around him.

In another world, Boss might have become House of Cards. It has a gritty, amoral main character played by an A-list star. It’s a pulp political drama disguised as prestige TV – all about corruption, betrayal and men in suits growling about how power means doing Bad Things.

It received good reviews and awards buzz. Grammer even won a best actor gong at the Golden Globes in 2012.

The only problem was that no one watched it. The pilot rated poorly and things got worse from there. Starz canned Boss after the season two finale, its story forever unfinished.

But that doesn’t matter, because you don’t watch a show like Boss to see what happens to the characters or where the plot goes. You watch a show like Boss because it is completely bananas. Boss will give you a collection of moments so surreal, it will feel like you dreamed them after drinking too much cough syrup before bed.

In one scene, Kane solemnly delivers a monologue about how power corrupts. For a while it seems he’s alone in his penthouse, until the camera reveals a completely naked woman seated at the far end of a very long dining table. Her entire job, apparently, is to sit there and listen to him. This happens multiple times throughout the show.

Kelsey Grammer and Connie Nielsen in season one of Boss. The TV show was cancelled after two seasons.
Kelsey Grammer and Connie Nielsen in season one of Boss. The TV show was cancelled after two seasons, its story forever unfinished. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

There is a subplot where a construction worker accidentally causes Kane a minor political inconvenience. Kane’s subordinate responds by cutting the man’s ears off on a golf course and forcing the man to deliver them to Kane in a gift-wrapped box. Kane then puts the ears down the garbage disposal unit in his kitchen sink.

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In episode five, Kane invites a political rival into his office. As the man reassures him of his loyalty, Kane uses the office bathroom with the door open, leaves without washing his hands and forces the man into a handshake. Before you say “Lyndon Johnson used to do that”, Johnson used to do it after using the urinal. Kane is not peeing.

Boss is desperately trying to be the next Wire or Sopranos and Grammer is supposed to get it there. But there’s a problem: Grammer is a giant ham. In all his best roles – Frasier Crane, Sideshow Bob, the wonderful, grift-running version of himself he played on 30 Rock – Grammer is bombastic and pompous, but it’s mostly for comedic effect.

Whenever he plays it straight, things go badly wrong. Think of his role as King Herod in National Geographic’s adaptation of Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly. Or Guardians of the Tomb, the Chinese-Australian horror B-movie about giant funnel web spiders where he screams about “becoming God”.

As Kane, Grammer hams it up harder than ever. The results are spectacular. You will never hear an actor milk a line like “Somebody … get me some water!” the way Grammer does.

There are moments where Boss is genuinely good. When Kane stops chewing the scenery and confronts the awful truth of his illness, he is devastatingly vulnerable. Some of his fumbling attempts to reconnect with his estranged wife and daughter are touching and bitterly sad.

But you forget those moments when Boss serves up yet another wildly implausible, ridiculously graphic public sex scene between Kane’s aide and his political protege. Or another Kane rant about “the greater fuckin’ glory of this glorious fuckin’ city!” while he twists someone’s ear like Miss Trunchbull in Matilda.

Boss is the perfect lockdown binge. After you’ve run out of shows and isolation has destroyed your higher brain functions, it will be there to embrace the chaos with you.