It’s Frasier Week at IndieWire. Grab some tossed salad and scrambled eggs, settle into your coziest easy chair, and join us. We’re listening.
Nothing against Seattle’s most famous fictional therapist, but Frasier Crane isn’t Kelsey Grammer’s best TV role. That title belongs to premium cable’s scariest (and on occasion campiest) mayor of Chicago, Tom Kane: the menacing title character in Starz’s gone-to-soon political drama “Boss.”
“I knew Kelsey’s work through ‘Cheers’ and ‘Frasier,’ but he was playing a really different character here,” said Gus Van Sant, who directed the first episode and recalled working with Grammer in a recent phone interview for IndieWire.
“He had played so many different parts in his career on stage that it wasn’t something he hadn’t played before,” the Oscar-nominated director said. “But he wasn’t nearly as lighthearted or as humorous as he was in his other TV shows. It was something new for him; though I had done that before with Robin Williams working on ‘Good Will Hunting’ — directing someone known for humor in something more serious.”
Creator Farhad Safinia’s almost Shakespearean character study existed somewhere between “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing,” running from 2011 to 2012 for a truncated two seasons before its cancelation on a regrettable cliffhanger. The small-time sensation chronicled the precipitous neurological decline of Grammer’s corrupt politician, who is diagnosed with Lewy body dementia at the show’s start and chooses to hide his illness in a desperate bid to stay in power.
“I have strong memories of the first shot, which was Kelsey speaking directly to the camera, monologuing and explaining his debilitation,” Van Sant said. The opening scene sees Kane, who is modeled loosely after Chicago’s real-life former mayor Richard M. Daley, receiving the news that he will become vegetative in a matter of years. It’s a single shot anchored in Grammer’s formidable but quietly frightened gaze as Kane rushes his sensitive doctor for a succinct explanation.
“Because it was the first shot, it was all very tense,” Van Sant, who grew up partly outside Chicago, said. “It was in a forgotten warehouse near the city, and it was hard because it was just settling into that moment. From then on, it was much smoother sailing.”
Kane’s big lie sets off a Machiavellian chain reaction, filled with degenerative hallucinations that result in disastrous consequences for the city. The series’ tone was just as frenetic. “Boss” could swing between comically melodramatic and sincerely bone-chilling in a matter of seconds, with Grammer’s towering presence bumping against the writers’ inclination to push the envelope on reality too far too fast way too often.
It was a show that had one of America’s most beloved sitcom actors delivering laugh-out-loud ridiculous lines — “I am the angel of fucking death!”— with staggering straightforwardness and behaving even worse. In the first episode, Kane casually shoves a pair of severed human ears down a garbage disposal over delayed construction at O’Hare International Airport. (Don’t ask how they got in his kitchen.) In another, he takes an open-door shit in front of an opponent as a baffling and pungent power move.
Van Sant exited the series after the first episode — a “standard practice” for the time, as the director remembers it — but he recalls the “Boss” chapter he helmed as a learning experience for both him and Grammer. The actor took a strong interest in the series’ camera work, which was certainly less prescribed than the live studio audience format of “Frasier,” and Van Sant reveled in his first opportunity to explore serialized storytelling. (The filmmaker is expected to return to the small screen with a Truman Capote-centric story for FX’s “Feud” sometime soon.)
“That was really my first television experience, so I was excited to be a part of it,” Van Sant said, noting the role he played in shaping the look and feel of the show as it existed across all 18 episodes. “And I thought the second season was as good, if not better than the first.”
The local government crime thriller was positioned as serious prestige TV at a time when Starz was in desperate need of, well, stars — and its ratings weren’t altogether bad. Connie Nielsen portrayed the mayor’s wife, Meredith, in a cast filled with newcomers (Jonathan Groff!) and TV vets (Martin Donovan!) who made for strong supporting performers even in Grammer’s enormous shadow. But the Lionsgate-owned network abruptly canceled the show ahead of Season 3 anyway: a decision Van Sant, who has lost touch with Safinia and Grammer, can’t speak to but says might have had something to do with the series’ intensity. (Notably, Safinia stepped back as showrunner and was replaced by Dee Johnson in Season 2. IndieWire was not able to reach the “Boss” creator for comment.)
“It might have had to do with Kelsey himself; he may have thought that was enough,” Van Sant said. “I’m not exactly sure who was calling that shot.”
Rumors of a feature-length film to wrap-up existing “Boss” storylines (via Deadline) quickly fizzled and there’s been no talk of a revival in years; Van Sant said this article was the first time he’s been asked about “Boss” in some time. Still, Grammer, who helped develop, sell, and produce the show, earned his only dramatic acting Golden Globe for his part as Tom Kane. The actor once described the role as some of the most fun he’d had in “a long time,” and, during his Best Dramatic Actor acceptance speech, he thanked Starz for ordering eight episodes instead of a pilot in surprisingly prescient foreshadowing for the streaming wars. That industry-shaking sensation would usher Kevin Spacey onto “House of Cards” at Netflix the year after “Boss” was canceled.
Van Sant isn’t anything more than a fan of Grammer’s these days and couldn’t say whether the actor would ever return to play Kane in the same spirit as his “Frasier” reboot was founded. But it hardly matters; the “My Private Idaho” filmmaker isn’t eager to get back into government dramas anytime soon. Over the pandemic, Van Sant noodled with a concept about a gay U.S. president, focusing on interpersonal relationships in the White House. But he has since abandoned the idea, deciding that, in the current landscape, most political topics “pale in comparison to the actual antics.” Tell that to those ears?
“Boss” is available to stream with Starz through Hulu and Prime Video.