Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Kelsey Grammer’s Acting Is All That Saves Boss Season 1!

The Good: Wonderful acting, Good DVD bonus features, Good plot development
The Bad: Loathsome characters, Thematically oppressive, Somewhat obvious/predictable plot
The Basics: Boss provides Kelsey Grammer with the chance to truly shine again as an actor in a dark political drama that starts murky and unpleasant.

I am a fan of political shows, but there are issues that I have with the concept of many of them. As a huge fan of The West Wing (reviewed here!), there is a high bar set for what political television can do. Lately, I’ve gotten into House Of Cards (season two is reviewed here!), but there are some issues I’ve had with it, not the least of which is that the protagonist lacks a motivation (Frank Underwood is incredible at manipulating political allies and enemies, but it has never been made clear why he wants to rule the world). Having recently finished rewatching Frasier (reviewed here!), I was eager to see more of Kelsey Grammer. To that end, I finally got in the first season of Boss to watch. While the show is much more like House Of Cards than The West Wing, Boss is a largely unpleasant eight-episode season of premium cable television . . . a season that is recommended only for the exceptional performances it contains.

While I can recognize and appreciate that Boss Season 1 preceded the production of House Of Cards and the two shows bear quite a few similarities, it is hard not for me to watch Boss now and feel like House Of Cards got more right than Boss. Boss is focused on Chicago, as opposed to the national politics of House Of Cards. It is the character mix of House Of Cards that makes it a superior show, but at the same time, it is worth noting that Boss has a better lead performer. Kevin Spacey is known for his range; Kelsey Grammer was pigeonholed into the role of Frasier Crane for almost twenty years, which gave him far more limited exposure than Spacey. In simpler terms, it was far more predictable that Kevin Spacey could rise to the challenge of playing Frank Underwood as opposed to Grammer being able to scowl his way through the part of Chicago’s uber-corrupt mayor Thomas Kane.

A hotbed of political corruption, Chicago is run by Mayor Tom Kane. Through Kane and his willingness to do anything for the city, the city’s Aldermen are kept in check and Kane and his staff keep the city running. Tom is essentially estranged from his wife, Meredith, who is the daughter of the former mayor of Chicago, who is now wheelchair bound and virtually comatose most of the time. For the past eleven years, Kane has had no contact with his Episcopalian minister daughter, Emma, because she has a history of drug abuse and he and Meredith agreed she was too big a liability to his political career. Just as Tom Kane is setting up a challenger to the long-established governor of Illinois, an expansion project for O’Hare International Airport unearths an Indian burial ground, which becomes a public relations nightmare for Kane.

As Kane’s assistant, Kitty, becomes intimately embroiled in the campaign to use State Treasurer Ben Zajac to usurp Governor Cullen in the Democratic primary, Kane’s chief rival, Alderman Ross, begins to lead a posse to destroy Tom Kane politically. When Kane ties the relocation of the Indian artifacts to a waste management bill, Ross pounces and causes an obstruction that cripples Chicago. Desperate to get Chicago up and running again, Kane begins to squeeze his enemies. But toxic waste found at the dig site gets tied to Kane (back when he ran the Department of Sanitation) and it makes the mayor toxic both to himself and Zajac. With all of his plans crumbling, Tom reaches out to his daughter, even as his wife stabs him in the back and he is left with no one to rely upon but himself.

What complicates everything from the first frames of Boss is that Tom Kane is suffering from an Alzheimer’s-like brain disorder. As his stress level rises, Kane begins to suffer hallucinations and blanks out during important speeches. The result is a criminally and medically flawed protagonist who claims to be working for the benefit of his city, but who struggles to keep control of the little bit of power he possesses. Over the course of the first season, Kane is put in increasingly bad situations and everyone around him, save his daughter and his right hand man, Stoney, turns against him and the viewer is able to take pleasure in the downfall of the corrupt man and the unraveling of his machinations.

Dogging Kane from the sidelines is reporter Sam Miller. Miller notices some issues with a school that is being funded through a private company that Meredith Kane is associated with and he begins an investigation that uncovers many of Tom Kane’s shady dealings.

In the first season of Boss, the key characters are:

Mayor Tom Kane – The Mayor Of Chicago, he is a cold man who is used to getting his way through graft and intimidation. When one of the workers at the O’Hare site appears on television, he goes to the Latino alderman to whom he gave the contract and uses him to send a message to his worker. He reaches out to his daughter, despite his concerns that she might be on drugs again. He keeps Meredith at arm’s length, even working to keep her in the dark about his medical condition. He spends many evenings with his father-in-law, even though he comes to implicate the former mayor in the toxic waste scandal,

Meredith Kane – Equally political as her husband, she brings the money to the relationship. The daughter of the former mayor, she feels Tom pushing her away even more than normal. She feels betrayed when Tom reconnects with Emma and she begins to investigate Tom’s doctors to try to figure out what is going on with his health. Out of her sense of betrayal, she begins to back Zajac,

Emma Kane – An Episcopalian minister, she is much more dogmatic than many of her peers. In recovery for years, she gets tempted by a charismatic drug dealer named Darius. She works exceptionally hard to keep a free clinic run by the church operational, despite its lack of funding and the temptation of the drugs in its inventory. After she begins an actual relationship with Darius and Tom gets back in touch with her, she is betrayed in the worst way possible,

Ezra “Stony” Stone – The brutally efficient assistant of Tom Kane, he helps the mayor get the medicine he needs in order to manage his disease. He springs the dealer when he gets nabbed in Chicago as well. He acts as the liaison between Tom and all of his staff and is the most loyal political operative Kane has,

Kitty O’Neill – The seemingly efficient assistant of Tom, she fucks anyone who moves. She helps manage Ben Zajac while having an affair with him. As she becomes more entangled with Zajac, she turns from Kane, but becomes flustered when she gets pregnant,

Ben Zajac – A political pawn of Tom Kane, the Mayor of Chicago props him up to replace the ineffectual governor of Illinois in the Democratic primary. He is the ambitious State Treasurer who, like Kitty, fucks any woman who will have him. He tries to be his own man, but is manipulated by most of the people around him,

and Sam Miller – A dogged newspaper reporter, his investigative reporting begins to connect the dots between Tom Kane and the corruption in Chicago and the Mayor’s health. He has the opportunity to expose Kane or move up at the paper, which makes for a crisis of faith for him.

On the acting front, Boss is all about what Kelsey Grammer can do. And in Boss he does it all. Grammer plays ruthless, angry, cold, and – in moments with Emma – hurt and genuinely caring. Unlike anything he has played before, Grammer’s Kane is given an incredible range for each and every episode and the sense of being lost and mentally foggy that he uses to portray his illness is delivered masterfully.

Grammer is the stand-out of the cast. Connie Nielsen’s Meredith is universally cold, Hannah Ware’s Emma is played (much like Kathleen Robertson’s Kitty) with two basic facades but no real subtlety, and Martin Donovan’s Stony is monolithically loyal with no real life outside the office. Boss lacks real shades of gray and the acting (outside Grammer’s many facets) embodies the show’s one layer nature.

Despite having a reasonable “ticking clock” with Kane’s illness, Boss is oppressive in its tone and does not have a single likable character in the ensemble. The result is a plot-heavy show that drags the viewer down emotionally, even as it moves along quickly for its pace. That makes Boss much more average than in any way superlative.

For other works with Martin Donovan, please visit my reviews of:
The Sentinel
Living Out Loud


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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