Why You Should Start Watching Boss

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 20 2012 3:14 PM

Why You Should Start Watching Boss

boss2
Kelsey Grammer on Boss (Starz)

Every political incumbent fights against time as much as his opponents, struggling to hold back younger politicians and new ways of doing things in order to hold onto power and a paycheck. Or at least that’s the big takeaway from Boss, which returned to Starz for a second season on Friday. Its generational struggle is accelerated by a plot twist: Chicago Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) has a degenerative neurological disease whose symptoms—principally hallucinations and mood swings, as well as a gradual loss of control over bodily functions—ape the indicators of aging and dementia. This lion in winter is hyperaware of the passage of time. Kane’s biggest worry is that his disease will get to him before he can shape his legacy, even if it means admitting that he has made mistakes in the past.

It’s a bold move. TV politicians tend to be either snakes (The Wire’s Tommy Carcetti) or saints (The West Wing’s President Jed Bartlet). Tom Kane is a reptile who’s angling for a halo, a reprehensible bully who wants to make amends.

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The new season signals Kane’s change of heart—driven by his increasingly unreliable brain—with a change of personnel. His longtime aides Kitty O’Neill (Kathleen Robertson) and Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) are gone—ostracized O’Neill leaves the Democratic machine to manage a Republican gubernatorial campaign, while the deceased Stone appears only as a ghost. A new pair of operatives has taken their place: Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff), like the old Kane, will do whatever it takes to succeed, while Mona Fredricks (Sanaa Latham) wants to use all the tricks in the political playbook to benefit residents of the Lennox Gardens housing project, where she grew up, rather than for personal gain. It’s as if Kane is squaring the two off against each other in the hopes that they’ll provide clues as to how his own struggle will work out.

The renovation of Lennox Gardens is also a rehabilitation project for Kane’s soul. His decision to neglect the neighborhood—its African-American residents don’t vote for him—was directly responsible for its decline into drug-infested gang territory. He needs the residents’ support for the makeover, but can they trust him after decades of abandonment? And even if they do, is it possible that the contractors and community leaders who have benefited from the status quo are even more powerful than the mayor?

Having seen the first five episodes of Season 2, I’m glad to say I still don’t know the answer to those questions. The potential for Kane to undo the political mistakes of his past seems greater than his chance of mending his broken family, at least—but then his wife and daughter are also less sure of themselves than ever, so anything’s possible. Tom Kane is closer to King Lear than King Canute, but neither story ended well for the guy on the throne.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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