Kelsey Grammer Offers Powerful Performance In "Boss"
The move by Starz resembled one long-time Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley would have made: no need to wait for public reaction, if it feels right, speed forward. Pleased with what they saw, Starz executives went ahead and ordered a second season of new drama "Boss" before the show had premiered.
That debut came last Friday and viewers should be thankful that the first batch of episodes won’t be the last. No doubt heavily inspired by Daley’s imperious, controversial run as the longest-tenured Chicago mayor, the series with star Kelsey Grammer is exceptional.
With its layered storylines touching on urban political corruption and a thuggish figure who will stop at nothing to maintain power, the serial might be described as a cross between HBO dramas “The Wire” and “The Sopranos.”
The central figure is Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, played splendidly by Grammer, who offers a lesson in the narcotic of power. The mayor controls not just the city council, but the governor of Illinois. He disperses city contracts at will to build allegiances. He manipulates the press.
Which might all be standard behavior for a political heavyweight, except for his brutality. Whether through a mysterious fixer or his own bare hands, Grammer's Kane ruthlessly goes after anyone who would stand in his way.
(Mayor Daley presumably was not as goonish, but so much of “Boss” comes right out of the headlines made during his administration.)
The masses don’t know how the sausage is being made by Mayor Kane or how he makes mincemeat of challengers. But in grand Chicago tradition, so long as he’s improving their quality of life, they might not care anyway.
Yet, while Kane can conquer the Windy City, there is one thing he cannot control: a degenerative brain disease that will one day render him helpless. So, he continues to wear natty suits and bulldoze anything in his way, while struggling to keep his diagnosis secret and avoid betraying any early-onset symptoms.
“Boss” is “rainy-day TV.” Once a stash of episodes are available on VOD or DVD, it will be hard for someone to stop watching episode after episode in one sitting. Netflix would be an ideal platform for the show, but its relationship with pay-TV network Starz is strained.
Former "Cheers" and "Frasier" star Grammer is a multiple Emmy winner and he might just pick up another one by the time "Boss" finishes. He has figured out how to make his character exude omnipotence, while displaying how fearful mortality is.
The biggest testament to Grammer’s excellence is from the get-go he blows through any typecasting. No matter what role Ted Danson plays, it’s tough to forget that he was Sam Malone on “Cheers.” On the flip side, it’s easy to forget that Grammer was Frasier Crane all those years.
The acting is otherwise mostly strong, while "Boss" has no other stars with renown even close to Grammer. A largely unknown Francis Guinan plays the crooked, double-dealing Illinois Gov. Mac Cullen superbly. (The last two Illinois governors have been convicted of federal crimes, so Mayor Daley isn’t the show's only real-life inspiration).
Also, Martin Donovan (with a minor role on "Weeds") does a nice job playing Kane’s loyal and ruthless apparatchik -- like Kane, he's a lesson in the narcotic of political power. As a Yale Law grad, he presumably has plenty of other opportunities, yet the chance to hold sway at City Hall is his choice.
"Boss," which has a constant feel of peaking drama, has intriguing storylines involving Kane’s troubled relationships with his wife and daughter. The show has added appeal for political junkies, especially those steeped in Chicago politics and Mayor Daley, whose father was also mayor.
Before he stepped down earlier this year, Daley wanted a massive expansion of O’Hare airport. So, does Mayor Kane. Both of their efforts are interrupted.
Daley faced myriad corruption scandals, some involving patronage and city contracts. Kane is an expert in those activities.
Daley was linked with alleged backroom deal-making with the Hispanic Democratic Organization. Mayor Kane turns to a Hispanic alderman to serve as an enforcer for his interests.
At one point in “Boss,” someones says of Kane: “He’s involved in everything pertaining to everything.”
The series carries the persistent question how long that will last. Can anything except his irreversible disease bring him down?
The good news is the show and Grammer's excellence will be around for a while before the answer is unveiled.