May 1, 2023

Review: Boss

Satan, your kingdom must come down...

(By television screen capture, Fair use, Link)

This is a review I wrote in 2012 of the television show Boss. I had it in my personal archives and never shared it, but I think it merits sharing more widely, so I'm posting it here.

I've been involved at some capacity with the Chicago political scene, mostly as an "outsider" political activist, for some twelve years now. When it comes to Chicago politics, especially for activists, the alpha and omega is the mayor's office. It was for that reason that the televised dramatic series "Boss" caught my eye, and I had occasion to watch all 18 episodes of the two-season run of the series on Netflix.

The series begins with a secret: Chicago mayor Tom Kane, played by Kelsey Grammer, is diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. Lewy body dementia is a degenerative mental disease that causes hallucinations, bodily tremors, and a decline in mental abilities. There is no cure, and its advance over the course of years can be slowed but not stopped. But Kane is a busy man running a major city in his -- oh, let's say, early 50's, and being diagnosed with an incurable degenerative disease is not something he is wont to do.

Rather than openly disclose his diagnosis and step down, Kane goes out of his way to hide the disease while he addresses a minefield of rivals and challenges as mayor. These include his less-than-enthusiastic wife, his estranged daughter, aldermen in the city council who threaten impeachment, the Illinois governor's race, corporate goons who try to wring cash from city coffers, developments with his own staff, a plucky journalist vying for a scoop, and the many, many skeletons in his closet.

Boss is taut, well-built, well-written, and full of intriguing characters and developments, which drew me in to watching the show and encouraged me to continue watching through to its abrupt end (the show was cancelled suddenly after its second season due to low ratings, leaving behind a lot of unresolved plotlines). At the same time, I believe that the show Boss mischaracterizes challenges to power and thus does a disfavor to viewers and the public. Yes, Boss is a drama and not a documentary, but for most people worldwide whose view of the Chicago political scene is this show, the likely result is the perpetuation of myths than a reasonably accurate depiction how things are.

Let me highlight two examples. Example one: I'm not giving anything away by noting this, but there is a plot point for a number of episodes in the first season that aldermen in the Chicago city council threaten to impeach the mayor. Small problem: In real life, no Chicago elected officials -- including the mayor -- can be removed from office once elected, unless that official is convicted of a crime.

Example two: The show depicts the most potent challenges to the mayor (aside from Lewy bodies) as officialdom and power brokers of various sorts. Not so in real life. In the twelve years I've watched and been involved in the Chicago political scene, the most successful challenges to officialdom don't come from on high but rather are organized from below. The Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympics wasn't opposed by politicians, corporations, and the media, all of whom lined up behind Richard M. Daley and ponied up nearly nine figures in "donations" for a bid. The bid was opposed -- and defeated -- by grassroots efforts and small groups with nary any budget, but who with smart organizing defeated the entirety of the Chicago establishment.

Even in those rare instances when there is serious division among power brokers (as with the Chicago Big Box ordinance) grassroots efforts stirred the pot. In the two instances when Boss shows protests, they are ephemeral, incidental, pop up out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. In real life, it has been grassroots efforts, the supposed "outsiders" and "losers" who have galvanized the most successful challenges to Chicago mayors in the past twelve years -- the antiwar takeover of Lake Shore Drive, the two-time repulsion of the G8, the defeat of the 2016 Chicago Olympics bid, the passage (however temporary) of the big box ordinance, the Chicago Teachers' Union strike of 2012, the jailing of Jon Burge, the rise of anti-eviction campaigns, and on and on. None of them happened without a small group of committed citizens changing Chicago; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Boss ignores this reality for what actually challenges power, even though the impending collapse of the powerful is the driving theme of the show. To drive the point home, the theme song of Boss is a rendition by Robert Plant of the spiritual "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down". Heck, the very name of the show, "Boss", evokes a former Chicago mayor (Richard Joseph Daley) whose best known national legacy is arguably the result of protest -- specifically, the Democratic National Convention protests of 1968. Boss can depict whatever it wants to depict and how, but it ignored the reality of challenging power for the purposes of making a concise dramatic TV show, even one of reasonably high quality. Who knows? If it had depicted reality more accurately, Boss might still be in production today.