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‘Boss’ entertaining, but doesn’t accurately portray Chicago politics

Updated: November 16, 2011 12:48PM

There’s a scene in the new Starz series “Boss” starring Kelsey Grammer as ruthless Chicago Mayor Tom Kane that involves him presiding over a City Council meeting.

The scene is shot in the actual City Council chambers, which unfortunately may be its only brush with reality.

At one point, Mayor Kane becomes so frustrated with the City Council refusing to go along with him on a particularly outlandish scheme that he clears the chambers of the press and public, shuts off the lights (and presumably the sound system) in the upstairs gallery and decrees:

“Hand over the hardware. Laptops, BlackBerries, phones, iPads. All of it. No word in, no word out. No Twitter. No Facebook. Nothing.”

Mayor Kane goes on to tell the aldermen they will stay there until they vote his way, and if they don’t, he’ll make their votes public. The aldermen grumble, then throw their electronic devices into a box as ordered, but still refuse to vote with the mayor.

Somebody has got to be kidding.

While I’m sure this cartoonish portrayal of Chicago politics will be well received in certain circles, Starz has it wrong on so many levels I don’t know where to begin.

So let me start by backing up.

“Boss” premieres Oct. 21, and my boss here asked if I’d be interested in looking at the first two episodes to comment on the authenticity of the politics.

Therefore, this is not a review. Personally, I found the show entertaining and hope it is a great success, mainly because they’re shooting it here and that puts people to work.

But is it authentic? Sorry, no.

Have the writers of “Boss” ever heard of an Open Meetings Act? They have such laws in all the states these days, have had for decades, even in Illinois.

You might be able to get away with something like that in the suburbs, but you can’t hold a secret City Council meeting in Chicago, at least not so brazenly. If the mayor tried kicking the public from a meeting, the press and others would have a court injunction within the hour. It would be a huge scandal.

A more basic problem with the show may be that the Chicago City Council doesn’t openly defy the mayor, hasn’t done so since the Council Wars period of Harold Washington’s administration, and rarely in the decades before that.

In Chicago, the mayor and the City Council work out their differences ahead of time in private, often one-on-one with staffers. The only drama about a City Council vote usually involves whether it will be unanimous. If there truly are strong objections, a rarity, no vote is held to avoid embarrassing the mayor.

I can see how that wouldn’t be dramatic enough for television, although I think the folks who did “The Wire” on HBO would have found a way to make it work.

With all the television shows being made about Chicago these days, you’d think one of them would get it right.

As a cable production, “Boss” seemed to have the best chance, and indeed, it’s not as if it totally misses the mark.

The show’s characters drop a lot of f-bombs for one thing, and believe it or not, swearing was common in Chicago politics long before the ascendancy of Rahm Emanuel.

There’s also a nice touch early on where Kelsey Grammer’s character gives a rousing endorsement speech for the governor that is so over-the-top the governor immediately realizes he’s about to get double-crossed.

This quickly materializes with Mayor Kane asking the young state treasurer to run for governor.

“What do you want from me?” says the treasurer.

“You’ll know when it comes up,” the mayor says. “You won’t have to ask.”

So true.

It’s the sort of thing that might very well happen in real life, except in this case the treasurer says the primary election is only three weeks away. In Illinois, candidate filing deadlines are months in advance of any election, largely precluding such sneak attacks. You also have to swallow the notion the mayor would take the treasurer up to City Hall’s rooftop garden to have this chat — to make sure the governor’s spies would spot them.

To my surprise, I had no problem accepting Grammer as Mayor Kane. Halfway through the first episode, he’d totally eclipsed his Frasier character. While far more eloquent than any Chicago mayor of whom I am aware, I could see Kane getting elected here.

If you watch “Boss,” though, just repeat after me: “It’s only a television show.”

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