"Boss': Politics as usual

A big-city boss confronts the ultimate challenge

Grammer (left), Nielsen: Darwinian brutality of big-city politics.
Grammer (left), Nielsen: Darwinian brutality of big-city politics.

Twenty seconds into the first episode of "Boss," the new TV series, Kelsey Grammer's familiar comedy persona melts slowly and finally away as, seated on a metal folding chair in a deserted slaughterhouse, he listens to a female doctor's quiet diagnosis of a brain disease that will mercilessly wither him physically and mentally before killing him in less than five years. It's a masterful reaction shot, the camera coming almost daintily closer as Grammer's fictional Chicago Mayor Tom "Slip" Kane receives the gruesome laundry list of horrors that will accompany his death sentence, his poker face betrayed only by slow blinks and the shadows of flickering thoughts.

Chicago politics have always fallen into the take-no-prisoners category, as befits a metropolis that Carl Sandburg called the "city of the broad shoulders." "Boss" takes the down-and-dirty wheeling and dealing to Shakespearean heights, or depths. And the kingpin is Boss Tom Kane, playing out his dying hand with the tragic brio of Lear.

Kelsey Grammer's Kane is a magnificent tour de force, a finely honed portrayal of a ruthless political animal come face-to-face with a destiny whose terrible finality no amount of the usual shady political skullduggery, maneuvering or dealmaking can avert. His Kane is a Midwest descendant of Orson Welles's Kane, that isolated citizen of his own failing kingdom.

Hollow marriage

At his side— an alluring, deadly political force herself, Lady Macbeth of the Midway— is Connie Nielsen as Meredith Kane, whose every thought and move is calculated to preserve the provisional power that constitutes the basis of their lives as well as their hollow marriage.

Meredith, whose father was a Chicago mayor before Kane, is totally, irredeemably steeped in the savage broth of Chicago politics, perhaps even more so than Kane himself. She readily banished their dope addict daughter, Emma— played with sad determination by Hannah Ware"“ to a frustrating life as a lay minister cum social worker. Yet it is only to Hannah that Kane shares the secret of his sickness; she alone has been spared the political miasma that renders everyone else in his life a potential traitor.

While the HBO series "The Wire" dealt with Baltimore politics as only one of many arcs in its sweeping, heartbreaking examination of that downtrodden city, "Boss" offers a dark, detailed, unsparing look at how a big city actually works, how every jot and tittle of its inner life is a carefully calibrated political chess gambit, winner take all— for the moment.

It's terrible in its unflinching revelation of Darwinian brutality. A Hispanic political underling literally pays with his ears for a misstep, presenting them to Kane gift-wrapped in a box, his head swathed in bandages. No one even blinks.

Sex as a job perk

Sex and politics are natural bedfellows in "Boss"; promiscuity among the ruling classes here becomes a kind of pressure-relieving perk. But for the most part it's gritty, loveless and fleeting, quickly forgotten in the hurly-burly of the unending chase for advantage and power. Wham, bam, and back to the podium.

Everyone but Meredith Kane, it seems, is rutting and running; her character echoes Lady Macbeth's murmur to the spirits: "Unsex me here." It is her armor against betrayal.

The first episode of "Boss" is directed by Gus Van Sant, also director of two of this reviewer's favorite films in recent years: the unsparing Drugstore Cowboy and Elephant, Van Sant's truly chilling take on the Columbine massacre. "Boss" also uses the spare, evocative piano music of Eric Sate to effectively bridge certain segments, a brilliant stroke.

In these times of elections waged under the black flag, "Boss" provides a much-needed reminder that politics as usual is more problem than solution.♦

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