New quality dramas have been in short supply on broadcast networks this fall, but cable continues to pick up the slack, first with Showtime's "Homeland," then the return of AMC's "The Walking Dead."
Now Starz introduces "Boss," the best new fall series. It's a captivating political drama that contains echoes of "The Sopranos," "The Wire" and "Breaking Bad" (or "The Big C" minus much humor).
"Boss," premiering tonight at 10 on Starz, may owe a debt to those predecessor series, but it really is its own beast. Kelsey Grammer stars as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, who learns in the series' opening moments that he's suffering from a degenerative brain disorder. There is no cure.
Created by Farhad Safina ("Apocalypto"), "Boss" depicts its vision of how the sausage is made when it comes to government, politics and campaigns.
Mayor Kane rode into office on the coattails of his father-in-law, a former Chicago mayor, and viewers will eventually learn that as morally corrupt as Kane is, his wife, Meredith (Connie Nielsen), may be worse. Early episodes suggest she's the one who pushed away the couple's drug addict daughter (Hannah Ware), now an Episcopal priest who runs a medical clinic. This gives "Boss" a Shakespearian-style family element, but it's the political intrigue that really makes the show hum.
Kane endorses an incumbent governor but secretly wants to install a new upstart, Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner, "Wildcats"), who seems like a Boy Scout on paper but is prone to potentially public indiscretions. Kane is aided in his schemes by quiet, contemplative senior adviser Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) and ambitious, organized staffer Kitty O'Neil (Kathleen Robertson). Kane's deceptions get the attention of a newspaper political reporter, Sam Miller (Troy Garity), who senses all is not right.
Mr. Grammer, so tied to his Frasier Crane persona, easily makes you forget about his sitcom creation. It doesn't hurt that Mr. Grammer's personal life has been tabloid fodder for a while now -- it makes Kane's messy marriage even easier to believe. But Mr. Grammer mostly excels with an ability to slip effortlessly from a cutthroat political shark to a man hobbled by a disease that causes him to hallucinate.
Because the story is told largely from Kane's point of view, sometimes viewers aren't sure whether what they're seeing is what's actually happening or something out of Kane's imagination.
As good as "Boss" is, it's not perfect. Mr. Safina's plotting has a tendency to drift into excess. Kane doesn't just verbally threaten his doctor to keep her quiet, he has henchmen drug her. Zajac doesn't just cheat on his wife, he does it in a hotel lobby where he easily could be caught in the act. A ward boss flunky isn't just reprimanded for overstepping his bounds, he loses appendages.
But there is greater nuance in the characters themselves, particularly Kane. Tony Soprano always tried to convince himself he wasn't a bad guy, he was just doing his job. It was an act of willful denial. Kane does not attempt such self-delusions.
"One necessary evil leads to another, until one day you can't differentiate between what's necessary and what's merely expedient," he says in the sixth episode of the eight-episode first season. "When that happens, you're done. You're a monster."
Kane is a fascinating TV monster, perfect for an era of political cynicism and disappointment. But TV viewers who watch "Boss" probably won't be disappointed and even those who are wary of latching onto a new series have reason to give the show a chance: Starz renewed "Boss" for a second season weeks before tonight's series premiere.
Kept and canceled
This week FX renewed "Sons of Anarchy" for a 13-episode fifth season to air next year. A&E picked up "The Glades" for a third season to air next summer. MTV ordered another season of Rob Dyrdek's "Ridiculousness" viral video show. Spike TV ordered a fourth season of "1000 Ways to Die" to premiere in March.
ABC canceled its "Charlie's Angels" remake, and TNT decided to pull the plug on cop show "Memphis Beat." CBS already halted production on "How to be a Gentleman" and moved it from Thursday to Saturday, but after one low-rated week on Saturday night, "Gentleman" has been pulled from the schedule altogether.
Movies, game show in
Deadline.com reports ABC is testing a game show intended for prime time on Sunday afternoon in the event NBA games continue to be canceled due to an ongoing management-labor dispute. "Million Dollar Mind Game," a logic-based quiz show with a $1 million top prize, debuts Sunday at 4 p.m. on WTAE.
Channel 4 also will offer movies from its digital subchannel, thisTV (4.2), at 1 p.m. Sunday and Oct. 30 on WTAE (4.1). Radio personality Melanie Taylor will host the showings, which will be "Dominick and Eugene" this weekend and "Teen Wolf" on Oct. 30.
National TV, local connections
"Jeopardy!" (7 p.m. weekdays, WPXI) will air a Tournament of Champions next month with two former Pittsburghers competing. Jay Rhee, a 1992 graduate of Shady Side Academy, will appear Nov. 2, and Kara Spak, a 1992 graduate of Upper St. Clair High School, will appear Nov. 3.
Next Thursday, "Jeopardy!" Clue Crew member Jimmy McGuire, a Pittsburgh native, will be in town to award Classroom Jeopardy!, an electronic version of the show that can be tailored to fit curriculum needs, to Pittsburgh Perry High School.
Another week, another Pittsburgher cast on a reality show: Next month TLC will debut season two of "The Next Great Baker" (9 p.m. Nov. 28), and among the contestants is Megan Hart, a 38-year-old paramedic for the City of Pittsburgh.
Fox Business Network goes behind the scenes of Alcoa at a Michigan operations facility in the Fox Business Special "American Icon -- Alcoa," airing 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday with an all-Alcoa hour at 3 p.m.
Mt. Lebanon native David Hollander, creator of CBS's Pittsburgh-set drama "The Guardian," has a new show in development for ABC. "Anti-Mafia Squad" is based on a 2009 Italian series about a war between mafia families. Mr. Hollander says the American version will be set in Philadelphia.
A new round of Comcast changes will affect few customers, but they're worth mentioning for those in the City of Pittsburgh who subscribe to basic cable.
Subscribers to standard cable (which offers about 50-60 channels) already went through the process of switching to all-digital delivery a few years ago. Now it's basic cable subscribers' turn (basic customers currently receive 20 channels).
As before, customers who get their cable from a wire from the wall that connects directly to their TV will need to install digital adapters by Dec. 6. There are no channel number changes; it's just a matter of how Comcast delivers the signal.
Comcast will provide three digital adapters to City of Pittsburgh customers at no cost. The adapters can be picked up at Comcast's Corliss Street office, or customers can have them shipped free to their homes by calling 1-877-634-4434.
There's no change to cable service pricing, and basic customers will get 10 additional channels after they make the switch (TV Guide Network, EWTN, JTV, leased access channel, WQED Create Channel, WQED Neighborhood Channel, ME-TV, This TV, The Country Network, Cool TV).
Digital adapters are easy to install, but if a customer can't do it, Comcast will for $16.
Comcast plans to shift remaining suburban basic customers to digital delivery, requiring a digital adapter, next summer.
AMC's "The Walking Dead' sprang to ratings life Sunday, drawing 7.3 million viewers, setting demographic ratings records for a basic cable series. ... NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has lined up guest hosts for November: Charlie Day hosts Nov. 5 with musical guest Maroon 5; Emma Stone hosts Nov. 12 with Coldplay; Jason Segal hosts Nov. 19 with Florence + The Machine. ... A&E brings back "Sell This House: Extreme" (noon Oct. 29). ...Former "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel will be a special correspondent for NBC's upcoming newsmagazine "Rock Center With Brian Williams" (10 p.m. Oct. 31). ... Another "Project Runway" spinoff, "Project Accessory," debuts Thursday at 10:30 p.m. on Lifetime, bumping "Project Runway All Stars" to 2012. ... NBC's "Today" will once again ask, "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?" beginning Nov. 7. ... A Halloween-themed "Martha Stewart" show will air at 8 p.m. Monday on Hallmark Channel. ... Michael Douglas will star as Liberace in the HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra," with Matt Damon as his lover in a film directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh. Production begins next summer. ... MSNBC changes its prime-time lineup Monday with "The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell" moving back to 10 p.m. and "The Ed Show" with Ed Schultz sliding into the 8 p.m. time slot. ... This week Verizon announced a new My FiOS app for FiOS TV customers that currently works with Android devices and will be available on Apple devices by the end of the year.
Tuned In online
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about closed captions, Syfy's "Being Human" and PBS's "Prohibition." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Flashpoint," "Star Trek" and "Pan Am." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "The Walking Dead," show cancellations and "The Good Wife." Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen:
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