'Boss' returns for second season with revenge at hand

Kelsey Grammer does dark drama as the mayor of Chicago in "Boss." Season One of the Starz series is out on DVD just in time to help you catch up before the second season starts on Aug. 17. CHUCK HODES
Kelsey Grammer does dark drama as the mayor of Chicago in "Boss." Season One of the Starz series is out on DVD just in time to help you catch up before the second season starts on Aug. 17. CHUCK HODES
Posted: August 17, 2012

Tom Kane triumphant!

One man, and only one man, was left standing in the season-one finale of Starz's drama Boss, which ended with a pitched battle over Chicago's mayoral office.

Mayor Kane (Kelsey Grammer), the undisputed boss of all of Illinois, was left to survey the harrowing scene of bloody - political, if not corporeal - carnage left in the wake of a coup attempt. It pitted him against virtually every one of his most-trusted allies, including his young protege, Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner); his political adviser, Kitty O'Neill (Kathleen Robertson); his wife, Meredith (Connie Nielsen); and, most shocking of all, his old friend, campaign manager, and chief of staff, Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan).

Kane - and his enormous ambition, outsize appetite, and God complex - returns to consolidate his power and exact his terrible revenge in the season-two opener of the epic political melodrama that premieres at 9 p.m. Friday.

Kane seemed off-balance for much of the first season, which opened just at the moment when he learns he has the degenerative neurological disorder DLB, which not only will kill him in the next three to five years but which also will progressively eat away at his sanity and his voluntary muscular movements. He's already begun to have the shakes - and the occasional hallucination.

It's not good for a man who runs his city with a Richard J. Daley-size iron fist.

Yet, to Kane, his greatest problem wasn't his disease but one of its more insidious side effects: The desire it instilled in him to become a caring human being again.

It led him to patch things up with his estranged daughter, Emma (Hannah Ware in a sublimely melancholy turn). It led him to reconsider his life and perhaps make amends before he was to go screaming into that not-so-gentle night.

But to weather the political storm, Kane had to kill that impulse and his tentative attempts to reconnect with humanity.

"Is Tom Kane victorious? It is a pyrrhic victory, if it is a victory at all," said series creator, cowriter, and co-executive producer Farhad Safinia. "The things he was trying to do, to reconstruct a more human version of himself during the process of the first season, all falls apart the moment there are problems. He rattles back to his punisher figure, this doler of punishment."

Punishment indeed: The mayor dodged accusations he dumped toxic waste in a suburban town by blackmailing a scientist; he accepted, with some glee, a box containing the severed ears of an uncooperative party minion; he may have been party to two murders, including that of his turncoat adviser, Stone; and he initiated a drug raid to bust his daughter.

Like all leaders, Kane needs to be something of a monster, said Grammer, who has attacked the role with an incomparable fierceness and steely resolve, winning a Golden Globe in the process.

"I think [Kane] becomes aware that being this vicious animal, this political creature who takes no prisoners . . . is something he must do," Grammer said from the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles.

Safinia, 37, said the kinds of sacrifices Kane makes aren't unique to him but are endemic to his position.

"If you are locked into the kind of political system we are talking about, even the winners walk away with loss," he said. "No one walks away clean."

Boss is perhaps the first series since HBO's groundbreaking The Wire to attempt an in vivo dissection of the complex political and economic workings of a modern city.

Yet Boss is more melodrama than social realism and its ambitions a little more epic.

Safinia and Grammer acknowledged the series is highly stylized and perhaps a bit hyperbolic, with a baroque Elizabethan element they consciously instilled in its DNA.

"We wanted to create what you could think of as epic characters in a highly stylized vein," Grammer said. "We borrowed liberally from several of [Shakespeare's] tragedies - Macbeth, Richard III, and, of course, King Lear."

Safinia said Kane is a latter-day Lear, a man used to having total control of his environment who suddenly is faced with death.

"You know that it is coming to an end," said Safinia, "and it can make you really angry because you think you can fight it."

Safinia said he also wanted to use Boss to show how power has been transformed by the modern political machine and the corporate money that supports it. It's a system that affects Republican and Democrats alike, because both sides are indebted to their contributors.

"The idea that there's a left and a right is a distraction," Safinia said. "The real issue is that the political system as it is today seems to be there for a very small group of vested interests and not for the average person."

Leaders, Safinia said, are often reduced in America to maintaining the status quo imposed by corporations - their responsibility is simply to allow business as usual to continue.

Grammer said Boss explores questions and suspicions some Americans have about our leaders.

"We try to bring the suspicion we all have about backroom deals into focus," the actor said. "We also wanted to show what people often suspect [about leaders], that they resort to violence."

It's a dark vision - too dark for some critics, who have faulted Boss for not including politicos who operate with good will and good intentions.

"Reporters keep asking me why there are so many unlikable characters in the show," Safinia said. "I don't have any intention of making them likable, because what they are doing is morally despicable."

Safinia said he was disturbed by the tendency to make characters such as Tony Soprano likable, because it obscures that they are responsible for the evil they do.

Is Kane evil? Beyond redemption? Not at all, Grammer said: "There is a swagger about the man, and also an earnestness about him. I think he really is trying to . . . find something to do that will leave some lasting goodness behind."

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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