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Like Kelsey Grammer’s mayor, ratings for stellar ‘Boss’ far from healthy

Sick city hall: Ruthless Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) is trying hide his neurological disease Starz's TV show 'Boss.'

Sick at city hall: Ruthless Mayor Tom Kane (Kelsey Grammer) is trying to hide his neurological disease in Starz's TV show "Boss."

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‘BOSS’ ★★★1/2

8 to 9 p.m. Fridays on Starz

Updated: September 17, 2012 12:59PM

Fans typically give one of two reactions to actor Kelsey Grammer, whose Emmy snub for his role on “Boss” should inspire an Occupy Hollywood protest.

“I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, ‘Oh my God. That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen you do,’ ” Grammer said at a recent TV critics gathering, referring to his role as ruthless Chicago Mayor Tom Kane. “On the flip side, there are people that come up to me and say, ‘When are you going back to television?’ ”

Despite being one of the most smartly written and deftly acted dramas on TV, “Boss’” draws ratings as low as the shady politics portrayed so vividly on the Starz show. Nielsen numbers aside, “Boss” starts its 10-episode sophomore season Friday on the premium cable channel, bringing back its intoxicating blend of soap-opera sudsiness, Shakespearean tragedy and scathing insight into big city politics, Chicago-style.

“It’s so apropos it’s shot in Chicago,” said Steppenwolf Theatre veteran Amy Morton. The Lincoln Square actress takes on a key role this season as state Sen. Catherine Walsh, a gubernatorial candidate who may be harboring a skeleton or two in her closet. “There’s nothing you can write that could be any more outrageous than Illinois politics is.”

Kane’s ironfisted chokehold on power is threatened by the degenerative neurological disease destined to kill him. By the end of last season, Kane had decimated his inner-circle of advisors and put his daughter in a bright orange jumpsuit to score political points. Viewers last saw Kane convulsing on the floor, in the throes of a seizure brought on by the illness he’s desperately trying to hide.

At the start of this season, Kane’s voracious pill popping manages to stave off the physical symptoms of his disease but at a dear price: He’s besieged by hallucinations.

Faced with his impending mortality, Kane is starting to play footsie with the idea of redemption. He’s on a mission to rebuild everything from his icy home life and obliterated mayoral staff to a blighted public housing project called Lennox Gardens.

The latter is a storyline that somewhat mimics the reality of relocated residents at the Frances Cabrini Rowhouses, where several scenes were filmed.

“Chicago as a setting is such a fruitful setting, and sometimes not in a good way,” said “Boss” creator Farhad Safinia (“Apocalypto”).

“That city is going through some extremely tough times right now in terms of violence,” he said. (“Think I haven’t spent my whole life wondering which way the next bullet was coming from?” asks drug dealer Darius Morrison this season. Darius is played by up-and-coming actor Rotimi, a recent Northwestern University grad whose first acting audition was for “Boss.”)

“I read this shocking statistic that as many people have been killed in Chicago from gun violence as soldiers have died in Afghanistan over the same period of time,” Safinia added. “For us to be able to try and mix in some elements of local politics of that nature with the sort of … backstabbing and wheeling and dealing of politics is a tough act to pull off. I think we’ve managed to do so.”

“Boss” has a unique resonance with a Chicago audience, whether intentional or not. This season features an elected official who’s gone AWOL and isn’t showing up to cast his votes. A key plotline is the mayor’s dogged determination to expand O’Hare Airport. And then there’s Grammer’s inimitable portrayal of Kane, which has begged comparisons to a certain former city leader.

“The cops in Chicago have told me that I have a withering look that is just like Mayor Daley,” Grammer said. “A lot of them come and say, ‘Man, the way you do that thing, the way you turn that ‘f--- you’ look on people — that is him.’”

This season includes a lot of new faces, all of whom are shaping up to be strong additions. (This season also has a new showrunner, Dee Johnson, whose resume includes “The Good Wife” and “ER.” Her background in broadcast drama could be why the action in “Boss” seems to be moving at a faster clip, at least in the five episodes I’ve seen.)

Jonathan Groff (“Glee”) joins the cast as Ian Todd, Kane’s young advisor who makes up for his lack of experience with an overabundance of ambition. Kane’s revamped team also includes the savvy and seemingly incorruptible Mona Fredricks (Sanaa Lathan, “Nip/Tuck”), who was poached by the mayor from his nemesis, Ald. William Ross (Evanston native James Vincent Meredith). Another newcomer is Tip Harris, better known as rapper T.I. He plays a former gangbanger with City Hall aspirations.

Much of the old cast makes a welcome return, with the exception of Hannah Ware’s Emma Kane, the mayor’s angry, drug-using daughter. Every time she popped up last season it felt like the story hit the brakes. This season is no different.

Call me a prude, but a preponderance of sex scenes and shots of the hot bod of Kitty O’Neil (Kathleen Robertson, “Beverly Hills, 90210”) are other needless distractions that carry over into season two.

“I’m glad I’m not in my 20s anymore,” quipped Morton. “Nobody wants to see somebody my age doing that stuff.”

Starz ordered a second season of “Boss” before the first episode even aired. Whether it gets picked up for a third installment hasn’t been announced.

The pay cable channel isn’t as beholden to ratings as a broadcast network, but it had to be disappointed that the Golden Globe-nominated drama averaged a mere 643,000 viewers for each week’s premiere — roughly on par with Showtime’s canceled series “United States of Tara.” (Starz says 3 million people tuned in weekly when you count reruns and on-demand viewership.)

“I am completely aware of what the numbers are and I’m heartbroken,” Safinia said. “I hope the audience comes to see it so that we get to tell the entire story.”

That makes two of us.

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