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Tuning in to TV

- - Sunday, October 23, 2011

Kelsey Grammer as 'Boss' brings Chicago politics to life

Kelsey Grammer makes it clear from the start: He is not playing Mayor Richard M. Daley in his new dramatic series, "Boss."

Sure, his mayor of Chicago talks about being in charge for 22 years - the exact amount of time Mr. Daley spent in office. For both men, the job is also the family business, with Mr. Grammer's Tom Kane following his father-in-law and Mr. Daley his father.

"We were writing a show that is a derivative of Shakespeare, [and] he's got 400 years on the Daleys," Mr. Grammer said this summer during taping in Chicago for the Starz drama, which airs at 10 p.m. Fridays.

Mr. Grammer told Mr. Daley as much when the two met and he "tried to reassure him that we had absolutely no intention of taking potshots at him and his father."

Viewers across the country may not know the ins and outs of Chicago politics, but they understand this is a city where power, "clout" as they call it around here, is held in the hands of a few, from the days when Al Capone ran his bootlegging empire with the help of judges and politicians he kept in his pocket to the better part of the past half-century when the mayor's last name was Daley.

"There's such a colorful backdrop to tell this story that just exists in Chicago, so the city itself becomes kind of a character," Mr. Grammer said. "We're borrowing Chicago as a kind of magic kingdom [that] you can believe is full of intrigue, betrayal, plot twists, secret documents and all kinds of things."

Chicago's history, both recent and distant, is thrown into the story. Mr. Grammer's character, for example, in talking about digging up a cemetery to accommodate the expansion of O'Hare International Airport - a real event - brings up Abraham Lincoln and the Underground Railroad. Talking about how the city was built, Kane tells of figures such as the Rev. Jeremiah Porter, one of the city's first reformers in the 1800s, and Anton Cermak, a mayor in the 1930s.

The filmmakers use many parts of the city, including the most violent and struggling neighborhoods and the sparkling lakefront and the jewel of that lakefront, Millennium Park.

Mr. Grammer said he did not need to study Mr. Daley or any other mayor for this role. He said that what he needed to know about Kane he already knew after nearly three decades as a TV star.

"The requirement for this guy really is a person who understands what it's like to be famous, and I think in some ways that made me perfectly suited to play this guy," said Mr. Grammer, whose marriages, divorces and personal problems long have been the stuff of gossip columns. "You need to understand a lifetime spent in the public consciousness, much of it negative, a lot of it positive. That sort of came along for the ride with me as an actor playing a mayor who is a very well-known guy."

Fishburne to narrate PBS film on black workers

Laurence Fishburne is the narrator for an upcoming PBS documentary on black workers in the post-slavery South, according to the Associated Press.

The film, titled "Slavery by Another Name," is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas A. Blackmon.

PBS on Thursday announced Mr. Fishburne's role as narrator of the documentary, which will debut Feb. 13 on public TV stations nationwide.

"Slavery by Another Name" examines the labor practices and laws "that effectively created new forms of slavery" after emancipation, subjecting blacks to brutal forced work,the filmmakers said.

The 90-minute film, produced by a division of the PBS affiliate for Minneapolis-St. Paul, will air as part of PBS' Black History Month programming.

Mr. Fishburne's other TV work has included "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," which he left last season, and the movie "Thurgood."

'Reed Between the Lines': The next 'Cosby Show'?

Since the award-winning "The Cosby Show" ended nearly two decades ago, few TV shows have offered positive images of black families. Now BET wants to fill the gap with new scripted programming, the Associated Press reports.

BET's "Let's Stay Together," a romantic comedy involving contemporary relationships that debuted in January, is taping its second season after helping the network score its best-ever ratings with an average of nearly 3 million viewers. The recent premiere of "Reed Between the Lines," starring Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Tracee Ellis Ross, pulled in solid numbers with 3.3 million viewers the night it debuted and 2.9 million viewers for a rebroadcast the same night. The audience slipped last week, though, with 1.2 million viewers on Tuesday night.

"We have a sense of relief that this show may be the closest thing to 'Cosby' since 'The Cosby Show,' " Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Warner and Miss Ross star as Alex and Carla Reed, who try to balance their demanding careers while raising three children. Miss Ross plays a psychiatrist who specializes in depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Mr. Warner's role is an online English professor at New York University.

Mr. Warner, who played Theo Huxtable on "Cosby," said "Reed" has the potential to be a quality show that highlights a loving, upscale black family in the same fashion as the groundbreaking NBC show, which ran from 1984 to 1992.

After "Cosby" ended and went into syndication, Bill Cosby publicly criticized the television industry for failing to maintain the standards his show had started. Over the years, a few shows have showcased positive black images and roles. Andre Braugher won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Detective Frank Pembleton on "Homicide: Life on the Street." Vanessa Williams has three Emmy nominations under her belt for playing a conniving fashionista on "Ugly Betty" and for her roles in the family drama "Soul Food" and the 2000-08 sitcom about young black professionals, "Girlfriends."

Miss Ross said TV for the most part has lacked a strong black father figure since Mr. Cosby's role, and she thinks Mr. Warner can fill that role. She said she hears from fans that they have been yearning for a family comedy show such as "Cosby," with two career-oriented parents of color who maintain a loving relationship with each other and seek to instill good moral values in their children.

"I think it's time for television to have a man like Malcolm," said Miss Ross, who produced the show with Mr. Warner. "There is a version of a stand-up kind of man we haven't seen in a while. I'm ready to see a couple who actually loves each other working it out."