Tag Archives: Boss

What George Washington Plunkitt could teach Kelsey Grammer

So I watched the second season premiere of Boss the other night and it was pretty okay. I would have watched it even without Stinky Pete’s little talk-show tantrum over how those Hollywood libruls wouldn’t give him an Emmy nom because he’s a Republican, but maybe viewership for the Elephants’ Graveyard Channel (aka Starz) got a little bump from all the wingers flocking to show their support for yet another lone voice in the liberal wilderness. It gets so you can hardly tell these lone voices apart these days, but the Prospector did his pouting in front of Jay Leno, so he probably stood out a bit.

The biggest problem with Boss is that Kelsey Grammer seems to think doing drama means standing around looking like a man who desperately wants a high colonic and the Home Depot is fresh out of hoses. The fewer the facial expressions, the greater the gravitas — is that how you think it works, Stinky Pete? 

Let me introduce you to George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall operative whose observations on power and politics are gathered in Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, a slender classic that ought to be on the shelf of anyone interested in political bosses — or, for that matter, playing one on TV:

I’ve been readin’ a book by Lincoln Steffens on The Shame of the Cities. Steffens means well but, like all reformers, he don’t know how to make distinctions. He can’t see no difference between honest graft and dishonest graft and, consequent, he gets things all mixed up. There’s the biggest kind of a difference between political looters and politicians who make a fortune out of politics by keepin’ their eyes wide open. The looter goes in for himself alone without considerin’ his organization or his city. The politician looks after his own interests, the organization’s interests, and the city’s interests all at the same time. See the distinction? For instance, I ain’t no looter. The looter hogs it. I never hogged. I made my pile in politics, but, at the same time, I served the organization and got more big improvements for New York City than any other livin’ man. And I never monkeyed with the penal code. The difference between a looter and a practical politician is the difference between the Philadelphia Republican gang and Tammany Hall. Steffens seems to thing they’re both about the same; but he’s all wrong. The Philadelphia crowd runs up against the penal code. Tammany don’t. The Philadelphians ain’t satisfied with robbin’ the bank of all its gold and paper money. They stay to pick up the nickels and pennies and the cop comes and nabs them. Tammany ain’t no such fool. Why, I remember, about fifteen or twenty years ago, a Republican superintendent of the Philadelphia almshouse stole the zinc roof off the buildin’ and sold it for junk. That was carryin’ things to excess.

Now that’s what I’m talking about! Plunkitt was a player in one of the most notorious political machines in history, but you finish Plunkitt of Tammany Hall convinced the guy didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was too busy making money (honest graft versus dishonest graft, look it up, Kelsey) and having a good time. Tom Kane is a boss with troubles. We get it. How about showing the most powerful man in the Windy City getting actually enjoying his power once in a while? Going everywhere in chauffered vehicles, giving people heart attacks every time you twitch an eyebrow — what’s not to enjoy?

I’m just throwing out a suggestion here. Because if the Friday premiere was as good as it’s gonna get, then Boss is as good as gone.

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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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