Cry me a Chicago River

Still of Kelsey Grammer in Boss

Those with an appetite for trivia probably know by now that Kelsey Grammer marked the imminent second season premiere of his series Boss by pouting that he hadn’t been nominated for an Emmy. Not because Boss is a low-rated show on a third-tier cable channel that only picked up the second season because its other original programs barely appear on the radar. Not because the drama nominee lists are crowded with actors and shows that are not only far better but about to end their runs, so it’s now-or-never time to toss them a bouquet (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad, end of story). Not even because it’s an unjust world and Emmy voters have short attention spans (they had five seasons to get it right with The Wire, end of story).

No, Kelsey Grammer thinks he got snubbed because he’s a Republican and those Hollywood libruls who keep Big Hollywood and other wingnut operations in 24/7 fits of indignation are never going to give conservatives a break. I’ll let Lance Mannion handle the Sisyphean task of shoveling away this latest dumpster load of conservative victimization porn and return to Boss itself, which I thought was absorbing and interesting in its first season, albeit with some serious reservations that might have me signing off before this second season is over.

Political bosses are a career interest of mine: Frank Hague, the preeminent twentieth-century American political boss, looms large in my first nonfiction book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, and even larger in my second, which comes out next year. Boss is set in Chicago, the stomping ground (in every sense of the term) of Richard J. Daley, the only boss who matches Hague in terms of power and longevity. The titular boss is Tom Kane (Grammer), who must contend with imminent mortality (a degenerative brain disease), a personal life hollowed out by relentless ambition (dead marriage, estranged daughter), and a host of foes and fair-weather friends working to bring him down. 

No problem so far: any TV show that offers even a modicum of political sophistication or historical awareness is fine by me. There were some powerful scenes in the first season, and the moment when Kane cuts a turncoat down to size — bawling him out, then turning off the lights and leaving the office while the victim continues to kneel on the carpet, too frightened to move — belongs on Kelsey Grammer’s career highlight reel. But Boss, while set in the present day, has a level of violence more appropriate to a Mideast dictatorship than an American city. Frank Hague never hesitated to ruin his critics financially, or have them run out of town by his thuggish police force, but as far as anyone knows he drew the line at assassinations. Chicago politics can still be pretty rough, but early in Boss we see an inept minion losing both ears on a golf course, and by the end of the first season the amount of bloodshed is more Godfather than Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.   

The biggest problem with Boss, though, is Kelsey Grammer’s gloomy one-note performance as Tom Kane. Political bosses came (and come) in all shapes, sizes, parties, and temperaments. Democratic Hague came across as a cold fish, but his Republican contemporary, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, was the Boardwalk peacock of Atlantic City. Nobody can dispute Grammer’s chops as a comic actor, but his scowly jowly Tom Kane comes across as Richard Nixon channeled through Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part II. How about a dash of Jim Curley, or even Michael Flynn, to leaven all those prunes?

So I’ll be watching tomorrow when Boss gears up again. But like Boardwalk Empire (the HBO series, not Nelson Johnson’s book), the show is best viewed as a kind of alternate-universe SF story, in which people with links to our history do things that reflect Hollywood notions of gangsterism (or politics). As for Sideshow Bob’s little hissy fit — dude, after An American Carol you should be grateful people even remember your name.

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3 thoughts on “Cry me a Chicago River

  1. Nordette says:

    I had forgotten he was a Republican. Does he really think anyone remembers an actor’s political affiliation when they watch a compelling performance? Boardwalk Empire draws me in much more than Boss does.

  2. I just looked him up on IMDB and it says Stinky Pete already has five Emmys. Was he a Democrat when he got those?

  3. I also see the show’s creator grew up in a family that had to flee Iran in the mid-Seventies. If they changed the title to “Shah” the show’s view of power would make a little more sense.

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