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Boss - drama shows corruption at the heart of politics

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Review of the recent TV series Boss - exploring the murky underworld of Chicago's political scene

"I guess it wouldn't be Chicago politics without a little spilled blood, right?"

The TV series Boss, starring Kelsey Grammar, depicts the Machiavellian, corrupt politics at the heart of Chicago's city government. Mayor Tom Kane, played with sinister brooding by Grammar, is the epitome of the pragmatic, ruthless power lord, the kind who rises to the top by expertly manipulating power, dealing out rewards and punishments to secure his position. He is the spider at the centre of a web. And the possibly unravelling of that web is the basic narrative of the show. Because Boss is not about the rise to power, it is about the fall.

Boss has some pretty impressive names attached to it. Grammar not only stars and producers, he has backing from people like Gus Van Sant and Mario Peebles, as well as Connie Nielsen as Kane's equally ambitious wife.

The location of Boss is not coincidental. Chicago is a Democrat town - one of the most secure and safe Democrat bases in the country. It is also the home of the famous Democrat party machine operating out of Cook county, which is considered one of the most powerful in the country. Every mayor of Chicago since 1931 has been a Democrat - the current incumbent if Emmanuel Rahm, the loyal aid to President Obama who was rewarded for his work with the plush seat on the fourth floor of Chicago City Hall. Rahm was not allowed to run for office as a Democrat, because a law was passed banning Mayoral candidates in Illinois from standing on a party ticket - a ham fisted attempt by the Republicans to break the power of the Democrats and one which is easily sidestepped.

One name is synonymous with the Chicago political system after the 1950s. The Daley dynasty ruled Chicago for years, first Richard J Daley 1955–1976, then followed by his son Richard M Daley (1989-2011). The Daley's were key players in the political scene - Daley sr worked alongside Lyndon Johnson and J F Kennedy, delivering the necessary votes to Kennedy to make sure he got his seat in the White House. Old man Daley doled out jobs to friends and colleagues like it was going out of fashion, binding people to him with golden chains. After his son came to power in 1989 he had to get around a 1983 court ruling that forbid the use of jobs as patronage. Instead Daley jr. made Chicago the centre of international investment deals and contracts which brought people in from outside - but even then the local boys made sure they got their share. "Chicago is still an old machine town where there are insider deals and a favoured few get the contracts" said David Orr, a clerk from Cook County. Kane is a modern Daley - the kind of man who serves six terms, winning elections without breaking a sweat, a monarch who receives the various interests of the city, doling out patronage or punishment ("A punishment is not just retribution, it is a signal") at will.

Under a system of such entrenched graft, it is no surprise that the corruption surrounding Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell Obama's old senate seat after he became president raised only an eyebrow or two (called a "pay to play" deal, you had to pay cash upfront to even be considered as a possible candidate for the seat). The crime was not the act, it was the getting caught - he was inept enough that even the press got wind of his money making scheme and ran with it, causing a humiliating arrest, prosecution and 14 years in a federal prison for corruption.

In fact Chicago has a reputation for the kind of corruption and graft that most other US cities could only aspire to. Chicago is a city where the mob became so powerful and well organised that it basically controlled the black market west of the Mississippi. The mob owned judges, they had people in the police and they paid for judges. The local power in the city resides in the Alderman. The Alderman run the local districts -they have tremendous power over local job contracts, meaning they can control the flow of money, wages, and labour in and out of communities. They seek patronage from the Mayor and the mayor rewards his friends. This was the heart of the political machine - the absolute connection between elected office and business, a fusion of interests from the corporate world, unions, the Mafia and local government.

Although in Boss neither Kane nor the competing rivals for the governors seat wear their political colours on their sleeves, in fact neither Democrats or Republicans are mentioned by name throughout the entire series, the implicit critique is of a city stitched up by one party with all the layers of corruption that build up around, like sediment around a stationary object. it begs the question; Kelsey Grammar is a Republican - is Boss a vehicle for a criticism of the Democrats? It could be read like this - but in fact the critique is too all-encompassing. Of course Chicago is a prominent character in its own right (the skyscrapers, and the impressive Sears tower, dominate the skyline when the characters stare out thoughtfully of the windows), and the party machine that is depicted is historically Democrat, there is no proposal for an alternative, there is no hint that a Republican administration would be or could be better. In this sense the show is authentically cynical of the establishment in its totality. Kane refers to "the illusion of change", the notion that the elections only affect the surface, that beneath the elected office there are powers and permanent interests which exis in perpetuity. You can change the person in the suit, but the whole process is a managed one of transition to ensure the vested interests do not lose out. In this scenario working people, the poor, the great mass of the citizens of the city are purposefully kept unaware of what goes on behind the doors of power, as long as they vote for the right person then everything can continue largely as before. Isn't this the radical yet increasingly mainstream critique of Presidential elections in the US? The more things change the more they stay the same.

And the show does not pull its punches about the psychological character of such people, how power corrupts but in a very particular way. Kane is - by his own admission a "bad man". "I have done bad things..." He admits when giving a verbal stripping down to a candidate for governor who has fallen out of favour; "you know what I see when I look at you, Mac? A piece of shit, a stain, a man whose moral turpitude taints the office he has sworn to uphold, compromises the people he has sworn to serve, and who doesn't even have the fucking competence to do bad things well." But is is not simple to say that the peoplein charge are bad - the show demonstrates their own justification for their actions. For people like Kane doing bad things is simply necessary to achieve the greater good. Later on in the series when he is at his most vulnerable he comes to realise that he has broken many eggs to make the omelettes - but that great things were still achieved. Kane's own self belief is fuelled by his knowledge that all powerful people must make dubious alliances and inevitably break principles and promises. However, they come to see themselves as integral to the common good, and as long as the great public are kept unaware of how dirty and corrupt the politicians have become, then that is a sacrifice that the powerful should be willing to bear. As Kane's political advisor and erstwhile ally Ezra Stone says in the final episode "I have done... we have done terrible things in the course of running matters. But I have always known why. It was always in the end because it mattered that we ran the city because we were best equipped to provide that which was good for its people, and if elements got in our way, elements that needed to be torn down then I justified the most ruthless of measures..."

Later Kane asks the million dollar question: "When does necessity become expediency?" For the politicians, this question should be deeply engraved on their desks. The opportunist and pragmatic adaption to the line of least resistance, or the line of least popular disapproval is the hall mark of the political mainstream today. His moments of self doubt are relieved when he looks over his city, the city that he has ruled for many years and comes to realise what changes he wrought there - through a combination of alliances and will power - were benefical to the city. But this is a struggle for power which must always combine a demand for respect alongside a regime of fear. In his advice to a Medici prince, Machiavelli wrote that "it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved". Fear is increasingly the preferred method of control in mainstream politics - from terror alerts to regular healthscares or media promoted campaigns of xenophobia. The bourgeois rule through fear because the social consensus which saw prosperity in the post war boom unravels and as it does so the urgency of

And this view of the Mayor as a bonaparte playing of the different sides for the mutual benefit of the city is a powerful founding narrative. Kane refers approvingly to previous Mayor, Anton Cermak, who "brought the cities factions together", but it was only later when the parcelling out of jobs and privledges to the different ethnic groups of Chicago became institutionalise - the Italians worked the Transit Authority, the Irish became cops, the South Americans worked construction. Everyone had a place, as long as you didn't rock the boat.

Another level of the show which reveals a certain vitalist undercurrent is the strong sexual scenes. Basically, a lot of people are fucking each other. There are no stable families, everyone is sleeping around. The show is clear: power is an aphrodisiac. But the sex itself is often rushed, illicit, the kind of quick-fuck that busy people dive into before rushing to their next appointment. Since this is a Starz show, and they rank alongside HBO in carefree swearing and sexing, the show enriches its character with a sex life that is not the usual coy kissing and fade to black of more mainstream shows. The lack of any meaningful family units reinforces a quite possibly conervative view of individuals out for themselves, or making their way in a world of winners and losers. Kane and his wife have no love for each other, they both pursue their own careers, they use each others profile to get what they want from the city. Years before the show begins they abandoned their daughter because of her drug habit, sacrificing her to keep the lie of their happy family unimpeached for the media.

One sub plot involves Mrs Kane and the privatisation of education in Chicago. She is working with a company called Scientia who are campaigning to win more contracts for privatised schools across the city. In a public meeting to discuss the possible privatisation of a school a member of the community makes an impassioned plea for the community itself to run the school, to keep profit out of education, to defy the forces of the market and keep education is a right, not a privledge linked to the bottom line of a company. Mrs Kane takes to the floor and delivers a cool and calm speech extoling the virtues of the new way, the benefits of a private company with extra capital to come in and buy more equipment, like sports equipment and computers, for the children, privatised schools don't have to "worry about teachers unions", they can fire bad teachers for the benefit of the children. The parents begin to nod along approvingly. The killer line is the one which best symbolises the post-political narrative of modern capitalism; "This isn't about ideologies, it is about what works". The ability to make the market seem natural and superior to all other models is still a powerful ideological tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie - one that is systematically being challenged in the post-bailout world but has not yet been overthrown.

The decline of greatness, and the wretched abuses of power that go along with it is synonymous for a wider decline of politics and security that dogs late imperialist American politics. As Mrs Kane argues at the community meeting "when I went to school America was 1st in the world for maths and enghlish, now we are 48th". The theme of Obamas inaugeration speech in 2008 runs thick, the fall from supremacy, but with the arrogance to believe they can lead once again. This is made even clearer by Kanes own personal, physical degeneration, caused by a neurological disorder. As each episode goes by his symptoms increase, hallucinations, black outs, trembling. As the political wolves surround him, ready to take their bite, any sign of weakness on is part would be the signal for them to devour him. The fear of his own weakness, an internal disease that he cannot control, reflects his fear of losing control of himself.

That is not to say that Boss does not have faults. Just in 8 episodes of the first season the numbers of beatings, mutilations and killings that are ordered on behalf of the Mayoralty was simply incredulous. We can all accept that people in power use the black arts to get their way - we can appreciate the cutting of corners or the powerful using intimidation or corruption to get their way by Kane was operating almost like an old school mob boss straight out of a Speak Easy in the 1920s. A little more subtlty and less gangland style killings would add a certain degree of realism to the show which it otherwise disrupts for the sake of ramping up the body count. Kane is also a little too all-powerful. He always has the necessary incriminating photos, knows who to turn against who - he is a skillful manipulator but at times this robs the show of tension, once he gets over the initial shock of some new betrayal he too easily destroys his opponents. The show should be seen as highly metaphorical, something that is revaled at the end of the season when one Alderman on the losing side of a coup attempt against Kane laughs at a colleagues fear about Kane's retribution, "this aint the 1500s and and we aren't living in Florence" - Machiavelli was Secretary to the Second Chancery in Florence between 1498-1512.

Nevertheless, these deficiencies do not mar the overall series, which is already being heralded as both a career defining moment for Grammar and is front runner for the TV show awards coming up.