In Kelsey Grammer’s ‘Boss,’ a little Macbeth with some Mayor McCheese

October 20, 2011

What a cold, cold place is the Chicago of “Boss,” the fancy new Starz series that premieres Friday night, in which Kelsey Grammer plays a corrupt mayor who is caught up in so much allusive Shakespearean tragedy that he barely has time to make the obligatory references to Teamster bribes and derogatory jabs at the Cubs.

It is not a bad show. Created by Farhad Safinia (whose biggest credit to date is co-writing and co-producing Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”) and executive-produced by film director Gus Van Sant (who also directs a couple of episodes), “Boss” comes fully loaded with most of cable drama’s requisite tropes, which include:

All of the characters must be despicable and motivated by personal greed; this means that deep down, they are tortured souls; everyone has a secret or two or 10. And as for brutality, a civic leader and other community pillars are not above outbursts of violence, such as waling on a lesser associate with a golf club; others prefer more subtle means, such as having an inconvenient drug dealer driven to a vacant lot and taken care of. The women must eventually unbutton their blouses and hitch up their skirts as a means of political (and penile) machinations. Finally, there is horror of marriage, in which spouses walk toward the limousine with smiles for the cameras and constituents and then, as the car pulls away, regard each other with the silent, seething fury of cobras.

In its first few episodes, “Boss” can and does pull off many scenes with confident artistry. It can even be beguilingly, addictively morose — and yes, there is such a thing. To its credit, the show strenuously dodges most of that hammy “this is how we do things in Chicago” dialogue and instead aims to be an almost “Wire”-like epic of interlocking tales of urban corrosion.

But “Boss” is also far from perfect and at times awkwardly blunt, especially with its overblown gravitas. That leaden tone unfortunately begins and ends with Grammer, who, even in his successful sitcom roles, has always been afflicted with a heavy crown. As Chicago’s Mayor Tom Kane, he is thoroughly theatrical. Someone said “Shakespeare” and he ran off with it. Fortunately for him, an excellent supporting cast helps us get over the hump of watching “Frasier” snarl at city aldermen.

“Boss’s” main plot thread is that Kane has learned that he has the early stages of a degenerative neurological disease, which will ultimately rob him of his motor skills and leave him a vegetative husk. Rather than trigger a quest for self-redemption, the news of his disease seemingly accelerates Kane’s scheming desire for absolute power.

Keeping the disease secret (having his poor neurologist terrorized into silence), Kane ramps up the corruption around him. He starts with sandbagging the reelection campaign of the incumbent Illinois governor (Francis Guinan) by manipulating the younger, more ambitious state treasurer (Jeff Hephner) to run against the governor in the primary.

“Boss” quickly becomes the lavishly assembled political melodrama it set out to be, with ridiculous lapses into tough talk and angry sex. A voluptuous, librarian-spectacled mayoral aide (Kathleen Robertson) is assigned to juice up the young hotshot’s gubernatorial campaign, and they can’t seem to keep their mitts off each other, getting hot and heavy in hotel conference corridors and glass-windowed campaign offices. It’s meant to be steamy, but it’s really just a parody of back-channel cable’s sometimes laughable tawdriness.

Side plots and layered characters are many: The real power, viewers progressively learn, lies with the mayor’s equally conniving wife (a measuredly mean Connie Nielsen), who is helping to throw unions overboard in a bid to privatize the city’s schools. The Kanes have an estranged daughter (Hannah Ware) who works as a minister and tries to keep her church’s free neighborhood clinic open — with the help of her new lover, a drug dealer from the streets.

Every character in this show is at some level untrustworthy and/or involved in crime, which finally turns out to be just another way of saying: This is how we do things in Chicago.

You actually have to hang your hopes on — of all people — a gutsy newspaper reporter (Troy Garity) who seems to always be on the verge of cracking open each and every one of Mayor Kane’s scandals. It’s probably only a matter of time before the reporter is also found to be morally and ethically deficient; he’s already prone to trespassing and illegally obtaining records.

Hubris is not only “Boss’s” central theme, it is also the show’s business model: Before an episode aired, Starz ordered a second season. The network, which is in a state of reinvention and wants very much to up its game, is demonstrating a lot of faith in a show that essentially asks viewers to wallow in a very particular style of mud. What works about “Boss” may also become the tedium that works against it. This sort of vileness can and will keep some viewers coming back for more; for others, it will feel like driving into Lake Michigan while wearing a cinder-block necklace.

Boss

(one hour) premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Starz.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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