Chicago is architecture, history, power and politics — often rolled into one. And there was a scene in the first season of the television show Boss that captured this better than anything I’ve seen on the tube.
The show’s main character, Chicago Mayor Tom Kane in a bravura performance by Kelsey Grammar, meets Illinois State Treasurer Ben Zajac on the green roof atop the city’s real-life City Hall. With his arm around Zajac, played by Jeff Hephner, Kane looks out over the skyline and speaks of Democratic power broker, and later mayor, Anton Cermak. As Kane talks, the modern Chicago skyline vanishes and is slowly replaced by previous-turn-of-the-century buildings, effectively taking us back in time as the story of how Cermak unified warring ethnic factions in the city by bringing them into the tent — and sharing the political spoils with each of them — is weaved.
Current-day Chicago returns when Kane’s story ends and the lesson learned. It was a masterful scene — the kind of smart stuff Boss often did during its two-season run on Starz. The run ended last week when the network announced the show’s cancelation.
Boss understood Chicago’s architecture and its poltically-charged built environment are important parts of the city’s narrative, which makes the show’s loss more unfortunate. Too many set-in-Chicago shows use architecture as window dressing. Boss knew buildings were about power. The second season’s plot line involved razing a troubled public housing project and relocating its residents — clearly inspired by the Chicago Housing Authority’s oft-troubled Plan for Transformation.
And consider the opening credits above. Here’s the city’s familiar skyline is foreboding as Robert Plant sings “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” There are stories behind the beautiful walls of this city, the credits seem to say. But too bad Boss won’t be around to tell more of them.