Starz’s newest drama tackles politics in Chicago. In the first episode of Boss, called “Listen,” Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer, Frasier, Back to You) speaks heroically of fighting corruption. Yet, he has a debilitating disease that will soon leave him incapable of doing his job, and he is hiding it. Not only that, but Kane is setting up Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner, Hellcats) to run for governor against the current one, McCall Cullen (Francis Guinan, Hannibal), whom Kane is publicly supporting. So Kane talks the talk, but fails to walk the walk.
Chicago is known for corrupt politics. Throughout American history, many an elected official in the city and state has faced charges, and spent time behind bars. These are not just ancient tales; a number of governors from the past few decades have continued the tradition. And while Chicago is not the capital city where the governor is based, it is sometimes blamed for the system that allows such bad behavior, if for no other reason than it’s easy to lump things together. Thus, the Windy City is the perfect setting for a story like Boss, and Tom Kane is a familiar figure. While not based specifically on any real person, with a fictional story unfolding, Boss does uphold a realistic spirit, and is easily believable. That is not to say that all politicians from Chicago are corrupt, of course. There are probably plenty of good, even great, ones. But there is a reputation that Chicago has in the minds of many people, and this series plays into that stereotype.
Is disease a personal issue, or does the general population deserve to know about it, when, like Kane, the ill person is a public servant? After all, the people elect him to do a job, and the symptoms of the disease will soon begin negatively impacting his abilities. Kane is destined to begin hallucinating and lose intellectual function. These are not trivial matters for a high ranking public official. In this case, it is unethical to hide the condition. In this case, the stakes are much more than just personal.
Not only is Kane hiding the disease, but he is going to great lengths to do so, further betraying the public trust. Using a close confidant named Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan, Weeds, Insomnia), Kane asks that his doctor (Karen Aldridge, well known in the Chicago theater world) be reminded of her obligations to stay silent on the matter. One of Stone’s connections does this by drugging and threatening her. This, despite the fact that the good doc blew off reporter Sam Miller (Troy Garity,The Playboy Club), who is digging around. Will the scare tactic make her more determined to stay silent, or will it backfire, as she wants to get the story out?
One has to wonder how Kane chooses Zajac as his man in the race for Illinois governor. Kane seems to have a working relationship with Cullen already. And Kane stages a photo with Zajac to leak to Cullen instead of keeping it a secret. But perhaps Kane wants more power, and thinks that Zajac is the right patsy to get him that? Not that Kane will be able to wield such influence for long, considering his condition. More importantly, Kane’s assistant, Kitty O’Neil (Kathleen Robertson, Tin Man, Beverly Hills, 90210), is sleeping with Zajac. Did she bring Zajac to Kane’s attention? Is Kane having her sleep with Zajac to further control him? Or did they just meet because of the new arrangement? This relationship bears further scrutiny.
Not everyone is in the dark about Kane, even though he works hard at his noble public image. In “Listen,” a Native American burial ground is found near the airport. So as to not interfere with his plans to expand O’Hare, Kane has control of the sacred soil put on a trash service bill as an addendum. Suddenly, the city council, who do not seem surprised, is angrily forced to hand Kane power without oversight, or risk alienating constituents for voting down a popular and necessary measure. While this is not resolved by the end of the episode, it’s fairly clear that Kane will get his way.
Kane seems like one tough cookie. Besides the way he handles his political opponents, and the derisive way he treats his staff, even coldly telling Kitty to never ask if he’s OK, there’s something in “Listen” that demonstrates Kane’s character even better. It’s true that the real measure of a man is what he does when he is alone. At a fundraiser, Kane is given a box. Opening it later in his kitchen, he finds severed human ears, presumably belonging to the guy that gives him the box, whose head is bandaged. Kane nonchalantly picks them up and drops them in the garbage disposal. This means Kane is calculating, hard to frighten, and has little compassion for his fellow human beings. The casual manner in which he handles the whole thing is chilling.
Sadly, Kane’s family likes him about as much as his enemies do. His wife, Meredith (Connie Neilsen, Gladiator, Law & Order: SVU), has her own bedroom, when Kane even returns to his house, which apparently is not a daily occurrence. She barely talks to him, only as necessary, and does public functions just to maintain an image. Why even stay married then? Well, Meredith may be the one who wants to keep the union intact. As the mayor’s wife, she controls education funding, and is an important figure. Take away who her husband is, and that evaporates. This could point to Meredith being nearly as cold as her husband.
Daughter Emma (Hannah Ware, Shame) works at a health clinic for the poor, and is also a minister. So she’s probably a lot more warm and caring than her parents. She doesn’t have much interest in speaking with her father when he calls, though, so she knows who he is, and is soured on him. That’s not surprising. What is, is that despite all of her good deeds, Emma goes out of her way to bond with a drug dealer named Darius (Rotimi Akinosho). She does throw away the drugs he gives her, but is that because she is an addict trying not to relapse? Is she trying to expose Darius and stop his activities? It’s just not clear yet.
When faced with one’s mortality, one wants their loved ones around for comfort and support. In “Listen,” Kane begins to show signs of this. He calls his daughter, and he tries to strike up a chat with his wife, both of whom are less than receptive. Is it too late for Kane to find peace before death? Should he focus on a political legacy, or his family? He probably doesn’t have time left for both, and if he tries to balance, he could accomplish neither. Which sets up Boss as a very neat, gripping drama, starring a fantastic actor at the top of his game.
Watch Boss Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Starz.