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posted: 8/13/2012 6:00 AM

Kelsey Grammer returns as colorful Chicago mayor in 'Boss'

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  • Kelsey Grammer stars in "Boss," which returns for its second season Friday on Starz.

    Kelsey Grammer stars in "Boss," which returns for its second season Friday on Starz.

By Kate O’Hare

On Friday, Aug. 17, under the sign of Leo the lion, the king of beasts, Starz launches Season 2 of its original drama "`Boss," starring Kelsey Grammer as Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, who is battling a degenerative neurological disorder.

"Our backdrop is politics, certainly," Grammer says. "But it's a human story about a king who has to lose his kingdom, how he deals with that, how he deals with his sudden humanity, is really what the story is. It's about human behavior rather than about political upheaval or change."

As to whether all politics really is just about human nature, Grammer chuckles and says, "Maybe the worst of human behavior, sure."

Chicago has long been known for its colorful crime figures and even more colorful politicians, who have reigned over a city government famed for graft, corruption and backroom dealing on an epic scale. How much of that is fact and how much is legend and hyperbole is up for Chicagoans to decide, but one thing's for sure: It's not all fiction.

"I've heard from other mayors," says Grammer, "saying that they basically can't watch the show, because it's just too true. It's a little unnerving, isn't it?"

Subsisting on grit and high doses of medication that keep the worst of his symptoms at bay -- but hallucinations do sneak through nonetheless -- Kane fought off challenges last year to keep his iron grip on the city.

This year, he adds two new aides, sharp Mona Fredricks (Sanaa Lathan) and ambitious Ian Todd (Jonathan Groff), and moves forward with plans to expand O'Hare International Airport and tear down an aging housing project. Meanwhile, his strong-willed wife, Meredith (Connie Nielsen), copes with the aftermath of learning of her husband's terminal diagnosis, until a sudden tragedy presents her with thoughts of her own mortality.

And political up-and-comer Ben Zajac (Jeff Hephner), the Illinois state treasurer who would be governor, flounders without Kane's patronage. He finds himself relying on his ruthless wife, Maggie (Nicole Forester), for political advice, while her emotional coldness and his own lack of self-control propel him to more dangerous sexual escapades, including one with a nubile campaign volunteer.

"It's a flaw," Hephner says. "It's an uncomfortable flaw. It's so fun to walk that line, because there are moments when there's true idealism in this guy's heart, but he just can't keep himself from exploding on impact."

Maggie is not above using her sexuality to keep her husband's attention, while still leaving him rejected and unsatisfied on anything but a political level.

"That's when you can find justification," Hephner says. "They've entered into some kind of relationship that neither one of them necessarily believes in anymore, so it makes an easy justification for all the moral shortcomings he has among the other ladies."

One could surmise that former Arkansas governor and President Bill Clinton's popularity with women not his wife could have been an inspiration for Zajac, but Hephner thinks it's larger than that.

"We did just do a scene," he says, "where there was the meeting in the crowd, kind of like the footage of Clinton giving Monica (Lewinsky) a hug in a press line. We had a little moment like that.

"Those are easy earmarks for people to set the bells off, but it's such a template for so many, not just politicians, but people who are craving power, and sex and conquest fit that personality.

"It's fascinating to watch -- people who get in their own way."

Grammer sees influences of Shakespeare's "King Lear" in "Boss." In the play, one noble character observes that evil often comes dressed in a pleasing form, remarking, "The prince of darkness is a gentleman."

Both Kane and Zajac have natural charm and charisma that helps them win over the crowds, but where their hearts -- and especially their souls -- truly lie remains a mystery, perhaps even to them.

"He's questioning that," says Hephner, "'Did I put my ladder against the wrong wall?' He's got to find that answer and see where it takes him. When you start to question that, you get a fear, you wonder if you just got lucky. That starts to open up a lot of holes in people's personalities."

While Zajac searches to discover if he truly is made for the world he inhabits, Grammer thinks Kane is quite certain that his ladder will lead him exactly where he's supposed to go.

"I believe Tom Kane is convinced," says Grammer, "that he has a certain destiny that must be fulfilled. I believe that he has imbued himself with what he believes is a God-given task. Whether or not he's intimate with God anymore, I don't know. I believe he may be, by the end of this run."

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