Good and bad, Kelsey Grammer’s shows have always been linked to a particular city. “Cheers” had Boston, and “Frasier” was set in Seattle. Even the ill-fated TV news comedy “Back to You” featured a Pittsburgh backdrop.
Now Grammer moves to a new city and out of comedy entirely with “Boss” (9 p.m., Starz). With a pilot directed by Gus Van Sant, “Boss” revolves around the iron rule and dark personal secrets of Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Grammer). He’s first seen facing a doctor who gives the grim diagnosis of a degenerative neurological disease. The scene lasts only a couple of minutes but seems much longer, because it consists largely of a reaction shot of Kane’s face as he hears the very bad news.
To make things even more intense, Kane meets with his doctor in an abandoned meatpacking facility, so as not to arouse any press attention. It also makes for dramatic set design. As if to emphasize the importance of the scene, Kane utters a highfalutin phrase about slaughterhouses, hogs and the Fate of Man as he and his doctor depart. And just to make sure we all know it was a significant line, the doctor assures him that she knows he’s quoting from Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
Unfortunately, Kane’s dialogue doesn’t need to reference famous writers to seem stilted, affected and unnatural. In another early scene, Kane is seen endorsing a candidate for governor and delivering a rousing speech that calls to mind actor/director Orson Welles’ political oratory in another movie about a character named Kane.
Devoid of a single moment of humor, “Boss” unfolds like a pretentious graphic novel. And that’s giving it the benefit of the doubt. Grammer, so good at self-deprecating pomposity in his comic roles, seems particularly ill- equipped to deliver lines laced with malicious obscenities or implied violence. On the other hand, few actors could deliver this dialogue.
It seems almost a shame to update the legend of the Chicago boss for today. Grammer seems so much better suited to playing a character from a distant historical period, when a glib delivery and refined artifice were more essential to the game. Dabney Coleman’s role on “Boardwalk Empire” comes to mind.
l Shattered by snakes? Do moths drive you batty? “My Extreme Animal Phobia” (9 p.m., Animal Planet) shows how expert Robin Zasio reconciles folks with their former tormentors.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Football and homelessness on “A Gifted Man” (7 p.m., CBS,).
• Chef Ramsay returns to old haunts on “Kitchen Nightmares” (7 p.m., Fox).
• Death and basketball on “CSI: NY” (8 p.m., CBS).
• The search for a shape-shifter gains traction on “Fringe” (8 p.m., Fox).
• “American Masters” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) profiles Pearl Jam.
• “The Contenders: They Lost the Election But Changed Political History” (8 p.m., C-SPAN) explores might-have- beens.
• Danny juggles crime-fighting and romance on “Blue Bloods” (9 p.m., CBS).