Chicago politics, like the city itself, is built on gumption, deal-making, blood, sweat, and opportunity. Nothing shows this better today than the new series Boss, which premiered on the STARZ cable network last Friday at 10PM Eastern, and debuts episode 2 tonight.
Kelsey Grammer is utterly compelling as the ruthless Mayor Tom Kane, who must lead the wild kingdom of Chicago politics while confronting his own mortality. To describe Boss as Shakespearean does not do it justice. Avoiding mere imitation, creator Farhad Safinia portrays the real drama, tragedy, terror, and intrigue inherent in a political life as calculating and dangerous now as it was during Queen Elizabeth's reign.
Boss follows Grammer as Mayor Kane, who, in the premiere episode, is told he has a life-threatening degenerative disease that will destroy his neurological functions. The depth of Grammer's acting invites only the viewer to see the tragic irony in his personal and political challenges. Despite the news, he delivers a powerful speech in support of the reelection of Governor Cullen (a perfectly cast Francis Guinan) while lining up an opponent to unseat him in the primary. Illinoisans know too well the power that Chicago and Cook County wield over Springfield.
In some of the more brutal and ugly scenes, Kane ear-wrestles an Hispanic alderman whose connections have disrupted the plans for expanding the runways at O'Hare, while later that evening accepting an award from a Latin-American organization, along with a most gruesome gift from the very contractor responsible for the controversy. We see Kane struggle to reconnect with his daughter Emma (Hannah Ware) who may have her own former addict demons to fight (in a somewhat unsatisfying storyline) while procuring illicit prescription drugs for his own disease. He works to control all things political around him, even in the form of an amendment to the trash collection bill, despite his deteriorating relationship with his wife and daughter. It is these kind of contrasts and parallels, or ironies and hypocrisies, that make the fiction of Tom Kane in the "most American of cities" so satisfying.
Starring alongside Grammer is the city itself and the unique brand of politics that Chicago is known for. Gus Van Sant's directing of the premiere episode showcases the beautiful and electric skyline representing American progress while contrasting it with the underbelly of the failing inner city -- crackhouses and abandoned stockyards. Even the magnificent dome of St. Mary's of the Angels in the opening credits is covered with scaffolding. While Grammer is right when he claims he is portraying neither former Mayor Richard M. Daley nor current Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, there is no doubt that each character has some element of a notable Chicago politician. Think of Tom Kane more as an Anton Cermak or Richard M. Daley but with BlackBerries, GPS, and nerve-blockers. This is what makes it so much fun to watch.
The similarities of young State Treasurer Ben Zajac (played perfectly by Jeff Hephner) to former State Treasurer/Senate Candidate Alexi Giannoulias can't be accidental. The best line of the episode (and most seemingly real) is Kane's response after Zajac thanks him for his support and asks what Kane wants in exchange. In true Chicago political style, Kane responds "You'll know when it comes up. You won't have to ask." The fact that Kane's wife Meredith (deftly played by Connie Nielson) is herself the product of a political dynasty is not lost on those who followed the trials of convicted former Governor Rod Blagojevich, married to the daughter of one of Chicago's most powerful aldermen. Watching two different union work crews set out rules as to how far to dig and who can handle coffins and who can't is not too far-fetched. When being accused of "bulldozing the First Amendment," Kane's autocratic style can only remind Chicagoans of Mayor Daley's unilateral closing of Meigs Field Airport by actually bulldozing the runways in the dead of night.
But for every real reference, there is just enough Hollywood and fiction to remind us this is not a docudrama. Richie Daley was not violent or menacing. I can't imagine any true Chicago machine politician who would need an Ivy League-educated handler or not know who Kenny Williams is or who speaks as eloquently as one who studied Shakespeare. And because it is cable, there is enough nudity and foul language to ensure an adult audience. But these sidesteps aren't enough to detract from the pure intense drama delivered by the cast and script.
Chicago headlines can ensure that the writers will have plotlines for many seasons. The previews suggest that we will see more of the personal battles, and the political battles will become more personal. The success of the show will depend on its ability to continue to intertwine the personal and political without resorting to becoming a soap opera with merely a political backdrop. Like Chicago politicians, it will need to deliver the goods and services and keep things running even if it's through payoffs. Can Boss deliver a fictional mayor for Chicago that the whole country would vote for, warts, disease, and all? I think so.