My Review of “Boss”

It’s on Netflix and worth watching

What is Boss with Kelsey Grammer? I had never heard of this show until it appeared on Netflix a few weeks ago. Six episodes in, I would say it is as good as — if not better than—the recent iteration of House of Cards.

Why is that? For starters, the plot of Boss is more realistic. It is indeed frightening to conceive of a mogul like Raymond Tusk shutting down the national power grid to further a personal vendetta with the White House. But such a prospect is far less likely than that of skeletons in the closet coming back to haunt a big-city mayor.

That is exactly what happens to Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane of Chicago. He is outstanding in this role. As with Breaking Brad, the protagonist receives a terminal prognosis in the first episode. Does that inure the viewer to potential despicable acts to follow and lead one to withhold moral judgment? Perhaps. In the tradition of Tony Soprano and Walter White, Kane has the aptitude both to inflict harm in his world and draw empathy from our own.

In House of Cards, Kevin Spacey is motivated by a slight that occurs at the outset: the new president passes him over to be secretary of state. The notion of the House Minority leader ascending directly to that position is preposterous, of course, and so the series starts off on a somewhat weak footing (in the British original, Francis Urquhart merely wanted from the new prime minister something — anything— other than his previous title of chief whip).

Boss sets things up differently. Twenty years before the action, Mayor Kane was an ambitious official in the sanitation department. The husband of the then-mayor’s daughter, he signed off on a plan to dump toxic waste next to O’Hare International Airport. Mayor Kane and his wife remain married but go their separate ways. The old mayor is alive but has suffered a stroke and requires round-the-clock care.

Kane glimpses his own future physical decline in the state of his predecessor. He lives with a mistress but that relationship is non-existent. After his prognosis, Kane attempts to reconnect with an estranged daughter, a recovering drug addict. He also begins sleeping with the father-in-law’s nurse. This arrangement provides a brief moment of joy; he shaves contently one morning while she picks out a tie. The ardor is fleeting, however, perhaps no more than ritual. “See you tonight?” she asks. “I think it’s better if you don’t ask me that, ok?”

Neither Kane nor his subordinates derive much satisfaction from physical intimacy. Kitty, his intimidatingly blonde protégé, is tasked with helping the young Treasurer, Ben Zajac, memorize talking points in a bid to dethrone the aging Governor Mac Cullen, the mayor’s erstwhile puppet. Zajac is clearly bemused by his ability to transform potential humiliation into triumph, and by Kitty’s enthusiasm to initiate sexual intercourse with him in a series of public spaces.

Another of Kane’s lieutenants, Ezra Stone, bears a Yale Law School pedigree, provides quick solutions to sensitive problems, and bears a smug resemblance to “John-Boy” Walton. Stone’s character surely could be making a lot more money as a lawyer in a big corporate firm, one can’t help thinking, had he not felt some odd compulsion to answer the call of public service (although I’m pretty sure he’s complicit in at least one homicide by this point in the show).

One finds in Boss a sterility to the realization of unrestrained political ambition. I am not entirely sure what all these characters are after. In House of Cards, the payoff is the opportunity to deliver a the State of the Union address or merely to sit in the Oval Office, surely the most rewarding of all commercial real estate. Kane’s chambers, in contrast, are claustrophobic and emasculating. The mayor crawls around under the desk searching for an outlet to plug in his laptop. He eschews a smartphone, unlike Frank Underwood, who sends incriminating texts with the smugness of an aging techie. Not Kane, whose neurological condition has led to a decline in basic motor skills.

I suppose we know the ending of Boss, which is that the show ultimately got canceled. Apparently, very few people actually were watching when it ran on the Starz network. There is some irony here, given that Frasier was for several years in the late 1990s the single most-watched television program in America. And, while I am happy to watch reruns of Frasier on airplanes, I am not sure I would ever pay money to download an episode – notwithstanding the fact that Kelsey Grammer once played the opening of Beethoven Opus 10 No. 1, and that is certainly an unrivaled accomplishment on prime-time television.

I would like to know how Boss plays out, however. And, like any sane person, I’m happy to re-watch the seasons of Arrested Development and Family Guy before those shows got canceled.

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