“Boss” Has Great Drama, Bad Politics

“The Chicago Code” may have been cancelled, but TV hasn’t lost interest in our city’s politics. This fall, the Starz Network is premiering “Boss,” an eight-episode series starring Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago mayor suffering from a degenerative brain condition, which he must hide from his family and his political rivals. The show was filmed in Chicago this spring and fall, and will air in October. Your Ward Room Blogger watched a preview of the first episode.

The plot is based on “King Lear,” and it’s Grammer’s attempt to rebrand himself as a dramatic actor after 20 years as Frasier Crane and two failed sitcoms. Grammer was trained at The Juilliard School, and has twice played Macbeth on Broadway, so he has a dramatic background. And at 56, he’s aged into the part of a heavy: he’s jowlier and balder, and the lines on his face have deepened.

Grammer is excellent as the sinister Mayor Tom Kane. As he tosses f-bombs around the mayoral office, twists an alderman’s ear, and gives a fatuous speech in praise of a governor he plans to betray, you will not think for a moment of the fussy Seattle psychiatrist who has become inseparable from Grammer’s persona as an actor. Grammer is very good at portraying the desperation of a man whose career depends on the impression that he’s in control, but is losing control of his body to a terminal disease.

On the other hand, you won’t think you’re watching a show about Chicago, despite the location shots from Englewood and other neighborhoods usually neglected by visiting directors. Executive producer and creator Farhad Safinia is from England, and he obviously learned about the city and its politics from reading books. Mayor Kane’s opening speech is a history lesson about Jeremiah Porter, founder of First Presbyterian Church, the oldest church in Chicago, and scourge of corruption and vice. He also gives a young protégé a biography of Anton Cermak, founder of the Chicago Machine.

But the show seems ignorant of the daily mechanics of our politics. Kane enters a candidate into the governor’s race three weeks before the primary, far too late to get a name on the ballot. He behaves like a Mafia don, twisting an alderman’s ear as the hapless politician writhes on the floor. Before a controversial City Council vote, he orders aldermen to drop their laptops and Blackberries into a box, threatens to make their votes public if he doesn’t get his way, and then swears at them from the podium. Someone needs to tell the writers about the Open Meetings Act. Also, the mayor is an Episcopalian. Like we’d ever elect a WASP mayor.

“The Chicago Code” had a better feel for Chicago politics than any show I’ve seen. “Boss” tries to draw on the city’s reputation for larger-than-life politicians as platform to portray a monarchical mayor. It may be “King Lear,” but it ain’t Chicago.

Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!

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