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TV: Playing Against Type

Boss and Homeland


In 1969, when Westerns still rode high in the saddle, audiences flocked to a new horse opera, Once Upon a Time in the West. In an opening scene, the camera showed a gunman from the waist down pulling a six-shooter, mercilessly killing a child. The camera tilted up to the gunman's face and to the audience's horror, it was Henry Fonda. The same blue eyes that belonged to Mr. Roberts were staring down the corpse of a child. Fonda's portrayal of an evil hired gun stunned American audiences. Four decades later, Once Upon a Time in the West is considered a masterpiece, in large part because Fonda played against type.

This fall's television season, which has already provided some entertaining (Once Upon a Time) and substantive (Person of Interest) debuts, recently unveiled two new pay-cable dramas that rank among the best in years, due in large part again to alternative casting.

Boss is a take-no-prisoners series starring everyone's favorite psychiatrist, Frasier Crane. Oops, I mean Kelsey Grammer. It's easy to confuse the two. Grammer played the radio shrink (on Cheers and Frasier) for no less than 20 years.

Boss breaks all the rules. Here, Grammer plays the mean, son-of-a-bitch mayor of Chicago--a town that has seen the best (and worst) SOBs in history. Grammer chews up the scenery as a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, silver-tongued devil who holds the city in his well-lined pocket. To add an extra layer, hizzoner is keeping a pretty big secret: significant brain degeneration.

Ironically, mental disorder also plays a role in this season's other significant find--Homeland, a Showtime drama about a CIA agent tracking a returned American prisoner of war, who the agent is convinced has been brainwashed by the Taliban to attack the United States. The twist here is that the agent suffers from mental disease, so her suspicions are, well, suspicious.

The agent is played by Claire Danes, the lovely young actress who usually offers innocence with her performances (My So Called Life, Romeo and Juliet). But in Homeland, Danes' character, Carrie Mathison, is an ambitious manipulator who isn't shy about breaking all the rules, beginning with the U.S. Constitution.

Danes and Grammer give two of the best television performances of the season, becoming frontrunners for next year's Emmys.