www.tidewaterreview.com/entertainment/movies/ct-ent-0816-boss-season-2-20120815,0,5851019.column

tidewaterreview.com

The 'Boss' returns, for better and worse

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

5:42 PM EDT, August 15, 2012

Advertisement

Meet the new "Boss," almost the same as the old "Boss."

This works without qualification as a line in a Who song about teenage rebellion. Applied to the TV series about the autocratic Chicago ruler played by Kelsey Grammer, it is both good and bad.

It's good because the show, in the second season beginning Friday, retains its satisfying dramatic heft, its accumulation of dark shadows and portent as Grammer's Mayor Thomas Kane grapples with a disease he is trying to hide and a legacy he wants to burnish.

It's bad because at times in its debut season, and early on in the new one, the show has swooned over its own naughtiness: the stand-up assignations in public hallways, the cartoonishly heavy-handed retribution dealt to political turncoats.

Chicago politics are a dark and slimy place, "Boss." We get that. Hell, we live that. But a gubernatorial candidate and a mayor's aide in the lobby of a downtown hotel? An ear chopped off to teach a lesson, like the twisted whim of a child king?

"Boss" presents one of those rare circumstances where the freedom of pay cable — it's from Starz, one of the also-ran movie channels — might be impeding, rather than enriching, the storytelling.

Any admirer of the female form will appreciate Kitty O'Neil (Kathleen Robertson) assessing herself, all of herself, in the mirror in the new season's first episode (8 p.m.). And the dramatic case is clear: She's pregnant, tossed out of the Kane administration, retreated to her childhood home, vulnerable.

But the nudity feels like an intrusion, a sudden change of tone from stately to tawdry, from "All the King's Men" to "American Psycho."

Fortunately, such moments are fleeting in the first three episodes, and Grammer, it perhaps goes without saying, does not have an equivalent moment of corporeal revelation.

What he does have is a new reality to contend with, 20 years into a rule that he achieved in part by marrying, lovelessly, the daughter (Connie Nielsen) of a previous mayor. Season 1, shot with real vision in Chicago, was about things crumbling around Kane, beginning with the diagnosis of a degenerative brain disorder.

O'Neil, his longtime aide, betrayed him. So, it turned out, did Ezra Stone, his even longer-serving senior adviser. The press, embodied by crusading editor Sam Miller, was sniffing around at Kane dealings, past and present. His estranged daughter (Hannah Ware) was dating a gangbanger, maybe using drugs again, while his wife was working her own schemes.

Yet slowly, and with stunning ruthlessness, Kane regained control. His doctor, the woman who knew too much, was forced out of town. The mayor had his daughter arrested to prove how tough he could be. Bodies fell, figuratively and literally. And in the end, Kane, played by Grammer with a spellbinding, brooding force that will surprise those who think of him only as Frasier, was back in command. But of what?

Now, in Season 2, he has to rebuild his team, which leads to new aides joining his staff: a young, eager type (Jonathan Groff) and a competent veteran (Sanaa Lathan) whom he hires away from a black alderman, his chief rival on the City Council, after a superbly choreographed floor fight over a vote on shutting down a public housing project.

Such atmospherics are, once again, spot on. The talk of O'Hare expansion. The conversation held on the Frank Gehry bridge east of Millennium Park. The newspaper reporter who says, in an echo of recent Chicago reality, "No one cares and no one reads. … They know he's corrupt. They don't give a" care.

Creator and executive producer Farhad Safinia, with Dee Johnson ("The Good Wife") brought on as showrunner, oversee a series that is shot beautifully, depicting a city both muscular and tired. Even their minor characters resonate, especially, in Season 2, Maggie Zajac (Nicole Forester), who saw her husband become Kane's protege choice for governor and now is the first to realize the mayor has abandoned him.

And the writing is potent, but with an elegance: "Conflict. Entanglement. Moves. You've just described my job," Kane says at one point. At another, he inveighs against "the Oxford comma," the rare municipal official who has an opinion about a heated debate in copy-editing circles.

"Boss" is, in other words, not shy about its artistic pretensions, but it also, most of the time, justifies them. Hallucinations, for example, are a side effect of Kane's condition, but the snakes and dead people he sees mostly illuminate his predicament, something that can rarely be said about imagination rendered on film.

But what's really compelling in the new season is that Kane, his physical condition worsening, seems to have decided that now, after all that has come before, he wants to do some real good.

His impatience with process is palpable, his interpersonal dealings blunt. The gubernatorial race going on as a backdrop — an increasingly complex and interesting one, by the way — doesn't seem so important to Kane anymore.

So he sides with his new African-American aide and, daringly, tosses aside downtown business interests in the awarding of a contract. "Greed stops here," he says in the speech announcing the news. "Spring has come to Chicago."

And then we see that this man is, perhaps, not wholly ready for reform. He's had cameras installed in the home of the aide, eavesdropping on her family dinner conversation. He may want to change, but he needs to know loyalty is not another hallucination.

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter: @StevenKJohnson

'Boss'

8 p.m. Friday, Starz