Put all thoughts of Frasier Crane out of your head. Kelsey Grammer’s latest character, the manipulative, seething Chicago mayor Tom Kane, is one nasty fellow. In the show’s premiere episode – which doesn’t air until next week, but can be watched online here – he proves to be ruthless, violent, and monomaniacal, a lot closer to Sideshow Bob than Crane. Personally, Grammer’s performance was arresting enough to draw me in, even as I was perturbed by the character, which sets him up as another possible entry in television’s growing gallery of nasty protagonists. I feel like at some point, main characters used to be lovable, or at the very least not downright evil, but increasingly shows seem comfortable placing them only a tiny hair to the left of the hero-villain line.
Personally, I’m all for it. Not that genuinely good people can’t make good TV, but when handled correctly, these deeply flawed individuals tend to be much more fascinating than the generic “cop with a past” or “dedicated doctor” tropes. The prime example is still Tony Soprano, who could switch between loving duck-gazing and remorseless garroting in a heartbeat, and yet there was something in his vicious charisma that kept you watching. The episode “College” is almost the perfect petri dish example of exactly how terrible and magnetic he could be at the same time. He really blazed the trail for a lot of the bad good guys that came after him, like The Shield’s Vic Mackey, Breaking Bad’s slowly descending Walter White, most of the characters on Sons of Anarchy, and even Dexter.
Obviously, shows with stand-up protagonists trading adorable banter still outnumber these by far, but it’s an interesting phenomenon. By the looks of Boss’ first episode, I doubt Kane will be getting much more endearing anytime soon, and it remains to be seen if Grammer and the writers will be able to walk the thin line between anti-hero and anti-audience. What do you think? Did you watch the first episode yet? How do you feel about these types of protagonists on television?