By Curt Wagner
7:13 PM CDT, May 23, 2012
A cunning vampire overlord, a murderous meth maker and an oil baron carrying a Texas-size grudge: In a summer TV schedule stuffed with bold, brash characters, Mayor Tom Kane vanquishes all pretenders.
He's the biggest, the boldest. He is the "Boss."
"Arguably, yes," Kelsey Grammer, who plays the Chicago mayor in the Starz political drama, said with a chuckle during a recent conversation. "Tom got pretty explosive at times. It seemed to fuel a reality about him. That he is just that big, interesting, tortured, conflicted and complex. He's a wonderful character. ... He's taken a wild ride."
Grammer's bravura performance earned him a best actor Golden Globe in January, a surprise after the series faced steadily declining ratings each week and mixed reviews for its highly charged style. Before the series debuted, Starz renewed "Boss" for a second season, which adds two more episodes for a total of 10 and begins at 8 p.m. Aug. 17.
Grammer, who also serves as a producer, and new executive producer Dee Johnson promise the series doesn't back away from the operatic tone set in the freshman season. Like Kane himself, "Boss," which is loosely based on Shakespeare's "King Lear," is "big, dramatic and epic," he said.
"That's the scale of the piece that we chose to do," Grammer said. "We wanted to do something akin to tragedy."
The first season delivered plenty of tragic, epic storytelling, ending with Kane sprawled on the floor in the grips of a seizure caused by the degenerative neurological disorder that he knows will eventually kill him.
Johnson, who joined the series this season as co-showrunner with "Boss" creator Farhad Safinia, said the "unique tone" of the show was part of the appeal for her. The veteran producer of such dramas as "The Good Wife,""Army Wives,""Southland"and "ER" believes the larger-than-life nature of "Boss" fits the world of politics because truth is often stranger than fiction.
"Look at history and you'll find outrageous, overt and covert methods of domination have always been used by rulers of one sort or another. And the difference between kings, dictators and powerful politicians has often been only a matter of degrees," she said. "This notion is taken to an extreme with Mayor Tom Kane, but because our story is set in present times and within a familiar governmental system, the things that happen—violent, sexual and otherwise—feel very much within the realm of possibility."
In the new season, currently filming in Chicago, Kane will struggle with the psychological effects of all those pills he's been popping while fighting to keep a firm grip on the city and trying to repair his legacy. After chucking almost everyone from his inner circle last season—including senior adviser Ezra Stone (Martin Donovan) and chief of staff Kitty O'Neill (Kathleen Robertson)—Kane has surrounded himself with new staff members whom he doesn’t quite trust.
"Some of what happens in this season is a fallout from that," Grammer said. "He's unaccustomed to have to explain to people what he needs from them, so he's a little quick tempered in the beginning of this season, of course, with some of his new aides.
"We've got some terrific people that have joined the cast this year."
Jonathan Groff comes on board as Ian Todd, Kane's new adviser with a secret of his own. Sanaa Lathan plays Mona Fredericks, chief of staff to one of Kane's many political rivals. Rapper T.I., Grammer said, is "quite engaging" as an ambitious former gang member with sights on City Hall. Returning cast members include Robertson, Connie Nielsen, Hannah Ware, Jeff Hephner, Troy Garity and Rotimi, who are joined by a who's who of Chicago theater actors making guest appearances.
Chicago itself remains a chief player in "Boss." The series calls Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on the Southwest Side its home base, but films all over the city.
"It's a new day in the best city in the world," Grammer, as Kane, said during a May 2 location shoot near Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. In the scene for the season's fourth episode, Kane ends his daily jog with an impromptu press conference to talk about a shocking event that rocks the mayor's office and the city.
According to Grammer, he and Safinia couldn't imagine any other setting than Chicago because of its political history and its unique swagger.
"We chose Chicago because it is already the City of the Big Shoulders," Grammer said. "It has that kind of personality where a single man can actually sort of be at the helm and keep his hands on the reins for long periods of time and can have his image reflected in the city itself."
Kane's ability to run the government will be sorely tested in the new season. As Julie Hebert, writer of the fourth episode, said in Grant Park, Kane has to "find new ways to get people to do his bidding."
That no doubt could involve bribery, betrayal, backroom deals, not to mention threats of bodily harm and yes, even murder. It makes you wonder if there is anything Kane wouldn't do to keep power.
"Probably, but we haven't found out yet," Grammer said, again with a laugh. "He is a political animal first, a survivor. He'll find a way to do that no matter what."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC