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Holly Hunter and Bobby Moynihan shine as Mr. Mayor hits “The Sac”

Illustration for article titled Holly Hunter and Bobby Moynihan shine as Mr. Mayor hits “The Sac”
Photo: Tina Thorpe/NBC
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“The Sac” has perhaps the strongest opening for a Mr. Mayor episode yet: Holly Hunter’s Arpi is hyped and ready to head to California’s capital, Sacramento (the titular “Sac”), in a way that only she can be hyped and ready for such things. If there were any questions left about who this character is, this opening (as quick as it was) surely answered them. As I highlighted Mikaela’s Liz Lemonian nature last week in the “high school never ends” plot, the Tina Fey-penned “The Sac” opens with Arpi’s version of that particular character quality, from her giddiness over Sacramento (for government reasons, of course) to her “song” about the capital city to her self-centered behavior when it comes to the first part (shown via the Alexa reveal).

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Also, if you—like me—thought it didn’t quite track that Arpi would even have an Alexa in the first place, then the neighbor Alexa reveal really worked.

One thing that sticks out about “The Sac” is that Hunter plays things like she’s simply starring in her own bizarre version of The West Wing, never winking at the absurdity of any of this. In her own bizarre West Wing, she’s still very much at odds with Mayor Bremer, immensely—and somewhat sadly—paranoid that every move made is one he’s making against her. (Bremer’s not really part of this version of The Mayor, so he’s not aware of this.) Hunter doesn’t even wink once things take a hard turn to Arpi’s trypophobia (fear of holes), somehow playing that even straighter.

That moment where Arpi and Jayden decide to make eye contact with each other for four minutes? That’s the kind of focus Hunter brings to this series.

There’s definitely something to be said about Tina Fey and Robert Carlock doing their own comedy version of The West Wing long after 30 Rock already existed at the same time as Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (as brief a time as it was)... but really, the only character who even consistently exists in that version of Mr. Mayor is Arpi. And it’s something that “The Sac” really highlights: Mr. Mayor is multiple shows rolled into one, and none are functioning on the same level. As I wrote last week, the best way I can describe Mr. Mayor—for everything I enjoy about it—is as “disjointed.” There’s a plate-spinning feeling that comes with Mr. Mayor, but instead of coming across as impressive, so far, it comes across more like an ill-advised choice for the series and what it is, whatever that may be. It would be one thing if Mr. Mayor’s plate-spinning was impressive throughout, but it only somewhat achieves that status about once per episode—when there’s a brief intersection—and that never quite defines the whole series or even episode. It happened when Jayden found himself entering the “high school never ends” plot last week, and it happens again here with Arpi and Jayden’s return from Sacramento.

While Hunter is firmly in comedic West Wing and brings whoever her scene partner is for the week along for the ride (here, it’s Bobby Moynihan), the rest of this episode is firmly in family sitcom territory. (Fey goes for an A and B-plot this week, with no third story.) It’s an established part of Mr. Mayor, but it’s also one that contributes both to the series’ lack of edge compared to typical Fey and Carlock fare and that sense of not quite knowing what this show is trying to do or be.

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As Bremer’s entire reason for running for Mayor boiled down to how Orly sees him, naturally, that’s a big part of the series. And it’s not that Fey doesn’t realize that focusing on the father-daughter relationship here completely removes any “Mayor stuff,” as Mikaela’s existence in this episode boils down to making faces because neither Bremer nor Tommy are doing any work. The issue here is that this family sitcom plot about an out-of-touch single dad is just a different show entirely, with weird bits barely sprinkled in to force it into fitting the tone of a Fey and Carlock series. (The Little Women joke about Stab Massacre 2 is the height of that.) It’s possible to make a family sitcom (or at least include heavy elements of a family sitcom among the rest of the comedy) in the vein of and with the full comedic sensibilities of a Fey and Carlock sitcom. But so far, the only person who has actually proven that to be doable without slowing down the comedy or the rest of the show—or without making it seem like there are multiple shows in one—is actually Tracey Wigfield, both with Great News and the Saved By the Bell “reimagining.”

Because it is baked into this series, there’s nothing inherently wrong with leaning on the family stories between Bremer and Orly. In this case, the story is amazingly simple outside of the Bremer/Tommy Finsta parts—Orly wants to see a scary movie, Bremer doesn’t want her to see the scary movie, because it will scare her—but it still comes from a natural part of the show. It’s funny to hear Ted Danson say slang incorrectly and inappropriately, but it’s the kind of bit that would work better on The Good Place, because that wouldn’t be all the bit is. As it is here in “The Sac,” it feels more like a Modern Family plot that has the occasional Fey and Carlock weirdness—and that weirdness is not even driven by Danson, who is otherwise the driving force of the plot.

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“The Sac” does succeed in separating Hunter and Danson so they can work with and elevate the rest of the cast, especially when it comes to Arpi and Jayden’s trip and all the twists and turns it takes (from strangers to “lovers” to friends). And while Tommy remains the character with the most question marks surrounding him, working with Danson here does give the character more to do. Mike Cabellon shines any time The Mayor has him devolve into “teenager mode,” which “The Sac” allows him to do as Tommy gets into the character of “Emma.” (It works better than his sarcastic mode, because it sheds the illusion that he is a better person than any of these characters.) But similar to “Brentwood Trash,” it almost feels like there is a beat missing in this particular story, which ultimately speaks to Mr. Mayor’s entire vibe right now: It never quite feels like a full or complete comedic experience, even though it is an enjoyable enough one.

That full comedic experience at least comes through in the Arpi/Jayden plot. Like the character of Jayden himself—absolutely brilliant in this episode, from “the long legs” to large pancake-eating—the trypophobia in this episode could be considered too much, especially in a story that already has a (long) leg to stand on with the Arpi/Jayden relationship. That something this out of left field solidifies their friendship is the kind of weirdness this show only sometimes leans into, but Hunter and Moynihan both fundamentally understand the specific show that they’re on and act accordingly. Which makes it even funnier when they’re dropped back into the other show with Bremer—but also highlights the contrast in the multiple shows within this one show.

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Stray observations

  • As I mentioned last week that I liked the first two episodes of Mr. Mayor much more than regular reviewer Saloni Gajjar did, I should also note that my grades for the episodes I’ve reviewed are relative to those initial grades. If this were my official beat, I’d have bumped all the grades up a bit. (And if I had my way, grades would be removed altogether. But that still has yet to happen in my time here at The A.V. Club.)
  • Alexa: “I’m sorry. I don’t know any songs about Sacramento, California.” Someone’s never watched Even Stevens and it shows.
  • Bremer: “Oil’s dumb. We’re California, we should be leading the way on this stuff. Solar power, wind. Fire power—is that a thing? ‘Cause, fires we got.”
  • Bremer: “Man, I feel like an NCIS.” Reminder: Ted Danson did eventually star on CSI: Cyber, the CSI that warned us that things like Finstas could kill us.
  • Jayden: “What do you value most in a friendship?”
    Arpi: “Mutual respect. Sacrifice. Similar milk preferences.” Jayden does sacrifice for Arpi by the end of the episode. They also end up with “a shorthand” and “a deep understanding.” They do a very flavorless version of Will and Jazz’s handshake!
  • Arpi: “Hey! You wanna meet up in a little bit? Maybe get some dinner and take the Lady Bird walking tour?”
    Jayden: “As long as it’s not as scary as the movie.”
  • Mikaela: “Where did you get this profile picture?”
    Bremer: “We Googled ‘cute high school field hockey blonde’.”
    Mikaela: “From government servers?!?” Mikaela doesn’t have much to do in this episode, but she’s got that great line (and a great line is said about her and her “violent cramps”) and is Orly’s go-to person for figuring out what’s wrong with her dad. The latter is pretty nice to see after last week’s episode.
  • Hot dogs are legs.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Despite her mother's wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB's image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya's your girl.