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How Boss and its ilk illustrate TV’s problem with political drama

Boss, the recently canceled Starz drama starring Kelsey Grammer as Tom Kane, a corrupt Chicago mayor secretly wrestling with the onset of dementia brought on by a neurological illness, recently wrapped its second, final, season. Grammer, who was one of the show’s executive producers and won a Golden Globe for his performance in the first season, clearly saw the role as a chance for him to show how far he can step outside of the high-domed comedy persona he developed in all his years playing Frasier Crane. The Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences may see it differently, because they failed to even throw Grammer a nomination in the dramatic leading-actor category. Grammer figures he may have that figured out, though: The star, never shy about explaining how his conservative politics have made him a social outcast within his own profession, recently appeared on The Tonight Show and speculated that he may have been snubbed by voters who recognized the quality of his work—because who could miss it?—but who “hate everything he stands for.”

That kind of conspiracy theorizing keeps with the tone of Boss, but it ignores the more likely possibility that other contenders nudged Grammer out of Emmy consideration because his show is ridiculous. Boss started out with a premise that’s far-fetched, but dramatically juicy: Kane is trying to make it to the end of his term while concealing the fact that he’s losing it. It played with the notion that Kane has become complacent and snugly entrenched in power, and now, with mortality staring him in the face, feels the challenge to step outside himself and tend to his legacy. “I am a bad man,” he says early in the series, but maybe, with the time left to him, he could use the power that his badness has bought and do some good things, if only so that folks will at least say nice things to him when he’s reduced to hanging around the house in his adult diaper, drooling into his soup. 

Instead of exploring the possibilities of this set-up, Boss settled for establishing that, even if viewers thought they might have some idea of what Kane meant when he called himself a bad man, they had no idea. Although viewers would be hard-pressed to detect a specific partisan bias in Boss—if only because all its politicians tend to be repulsive no matter which party they belong to—it subscribes to, and takes literally, the Obama-era Republican meme that all Chicago politicians are “gangsters.” At the end of the first season, Kane’s chief advisor, Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan), betrays his boss and is murdered on the mayor’s orders. (He comes back in the second season as a ghostly hallucination, which turned out to be a windfall for Donovan, since Boss is a show where only the dead people get to relax and crack jokes.) 

Because it needed to top this, the second season began with an assassination attempt on Kane’s life at a public event, which left him unscathed but put his (secretly estranged) wife, played by Connie Nielsen, in intensive care. At the end of the second season, it’s revealed that the shooting was a set-up, planned and authorized by Hizzoner in the hopes that having someone take a shot at him would win him some public sympathy. (At the last minute, because of his medical condition and how unnerving it can be to look out over a sea of smiling faces and notice a man you’ve recently had killed sitting in the front row, he flinches, inadvertently dragging his wife into the line of fire.) In what plays like an hourlong homage to the bloody climaxes of the Godfather movies, the season finale consists of one character after another getting payback for defying Kane, trying to destroy him, or just crossing his line of sight. One of these unfortunates is his favorite hitman, who is killed, his death made to look like a suicide, and blamed for the assassination attempt. As a consolation prize, he gets to take Ezra’s place on the barstool next to the mayor.

Some of the “political drama” on Boss actually qualifies as political and dramatic. The richest material in the second season has to do with a beautiful, idealistic black woman, Mona (Sanaa Latham) who takes over as Kane’s chief of staff. She regards him as scum and, at first, has no illusions about his motives, but something about her strikes a chord in him, and he tries to step up and earn her approval. He pisses off the big developers who thought they had him in their pocket by appearing to sign on to Mona’s plans for the redevelopment of a decaying, drug-dealer-infested housing project, Lennox Gardens, whose residents he has always regarded in a spirit of benign neglect. Then he actually visits the place, tells the people gathering around to jeer or stare at him that he understands why they’re not inclined to trust him, apologizes for his past indifference to their lives, and declares that he now realizes that he has a responsibility to all the people of his city.

When one of Kane’s political enemies parodies his heartfelt outreach to the people of Lennox Gardens by stirring up a middle-class neighborhood where people from the housing project are being temporarily shifted to foreclosed homes, Boss actually manages to pull some drama out of the kind of race- and class-based resentment and financial paranoia that has come to define our politics in the Tea Party era. And there’s something believable and tragicomic in Kane’s wanting to recover his lost ideals—or discover ideals he never had—to impress a pretty face. Sadly, the show isn’t content with having Kane’s attraction to Mona just be pathetic; it has to be sick and disgusting, too, so the rotten old pervert has secret cameras installed in her home so he can watch her having sex with her husband. 

As in any soap opera, sex is a big motivating factor on Boss, and though Grammer and most of the other male actors are convincingly weathered and practically reek of cholesterol, all the prominent actresses on the show—Nielsen, Lathan, Hannah Ware as Kane’s drug-addicted daughter, and especially Kathleen Robertson as his on-again-off-again personal aide, Kitty—look as if they might be asked to leave a Victoria’s Secret catalog shoot for making the models feel insecure about their looks. They also all act as if, no matter how well off they are, cold showers are priced out of their reach in Chicago. Kitty in particular is an amazing piece of work; she spends much of the first season having sex in public places with the married, family-values candidate she’s watching over as he runs for governor, and spends part of the second season working for a female candidate who urges her to expose her rival as an adulterer while trying to maneuver Kitty into the sack herself. In the last episode, Kitty sits down across from Kane and, while asking him to hire her again, slowly begins to unbutton her blouse. It’s a considerable relief to see that she’s just showing him that the D. A. has her wired for sound.

Sex and violence are a constant on most of the recent shows that are meant to be about politics, and it’s not as if Boss is sullying the pristine waters from whence Scandal and Political Animals sprang. Scandal, which has one of the best dramatic casts on TV and gives them some of the silliest shit this side of an all-day Teletubbies marathon, sets the bar for political verisimilitude about as low as it can get. It’s set in an alternate universe in which a socially liberal Republican has been elected president, and has an openly gay chief of staff who’s married to a younger man who keeps pressuring him for a baby. If you can buy that, you’ll buy anything, and given that “anything” is exactly what Scandal is selling in terms of narrative plausibility, it’s good that the terms of the deal are established right up front. 

Scandal explains its president’s complex inner life by giving him a past affair with the show’s heroine, the saintly super-fixer Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, who would be asked to leave the set of Boss because she was making the actresses feel insecure about their looks), and Olivia would never have gone there with some right-wing asshole. The president on Scandal doesn’t talk, think, or act like a national representative of his party, but by sticking a little “[R]” next to his name (the way Fox News has been known to stick a little “[D]” next to the names of Republican politicians after they’ve been caught doing something untoward in a public restroom), Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes may think she’s proven that she isn’t one of those knee-jerk Hollywood liberals who hate Kelsey Grammer so much that they would unfairly deny him a sixth Emmy Award. Instead, she’s unintentionally pointed out one of the ironic difficulties of turning contemporary politics into drama: Drama depends on characters who can’t be reduced to simple labels. But in a time when millions of people base their opinion on something like the killing of Osama Bin Laden strictly on who was president when it happened, American politics seems to be all about reducing people to simple labels.

If Scandal suffers from a surfeit of dramatic license, Political Animals manages to be just as silly while remaining too tethered to recent history to take flight. Sigourney Weaver plays the former first lady of a charismatic, back-slapping, compulsively philandering Southern president (played, in the WTF? casting call of the decade, by Ciarán Hinds). Having failed in her own bid for the party’s presidential nomination, she divorces him and becomes secretary of state. Political Animals packs a lot of incident and backstory into its six hours, but the writing and directing don’t have enough authority to make any of it count on its own. Its effectiveness depends on viewers getting wrapped up in a story that projects the Bill and Hillary story onto a TV show. Political Animals suggest that if Hillary Clinton had divorced Bill, her career would have turned out pretty much the same, but he’d have been reduced to becoming the ex-president equivalent of a washed-up TV actor who still gets to work in Vegas because the casino knows it can pay him in free drinks. Scandal and Political Animals are linked by a shared delusion that politics, famously described by some smart aleck as show business for ugly people, is glamorous. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that both shows were once supposed to be about the music business, with warring married characters modeled on Ike and Tina and an Olivia Pope figure based on David Geffen.

Boss is easily the best of these shows. It’s ambitious and compulsively watchable; some of it is even good. That just makes it more frustrating, though. It’s scaled to be a Greek tragedy about a modern politician, but its creators don’t seem to understand that once your political boss starts behaving more like a crime lord—when he can just have anyone who gets in his way whacked—it’s not a political drama, but rather a superhero comic set during the superhero’s summer vacation. If Lex Luthor really had managed to wipe Superman off the face of the earth, this is how things would have ended up. (The show’s creators also don’t seem to understand that, if their antihero is and always was a monster through and through, with no greatness or even goodness in him to thwart, then there’s nothing tragic about him or his story. But that’s another argument.) 

I don’t know how much of a coincidence it is that the two recent American shows that have been most successful as political dramas—both in terms of using politics as dramatic material and suffusing the drama of their characters’ lives with political awareness, without getting preachy—come at the subject through the side door. The Wire started out as a crime show about cops trying to bring down drug dealers; The Good Wife is a courtroom drama with a middle-aged heroine trying to remake her life. But both were soon up to their elbows in politics, which entered the shows through a natural process: First because of the workplace politics their heroes had to master to do their jobs, then because those jobs brought them into contact with politicians, and sometimes made them targets. Both shows expanded into multi-layered examinations of how a big city operates, and they couldn’t have done that if their creators didn’t find politics interesting, and have something to say about it. 

The creators behind Boss, Scandal, and Political Animals probably think they find politics and the workings of big cities interesting, but the shows they’ve made about these subjects tell a different story. What the creative team behind Boss, for instance, finds compelling is a character with lots of power and limited self-control boxed into a corner, so that Kelsey Grammer can give his hambone a workout. Being the mayor of Chicago gives him plenty of opportunity to do that, but for all the show cares about what the job of being mayor of Chicago is really like, he might just as well be the megalomaniacal owner of a chain of portable toilet outlets. If he were, the show might be even sillier, but it would be less of a wasted opportunity.