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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ted Danson and the rest of Mr. Mayor’s ace cast can’t save its weak humor and poorly timed arrival

Ted Danson and Bobby Moynihan
Ted Danson and Bobby Moynihan
Photo: Mitchell Haddad/NBC
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It’s been less than a year since Ted Danson last graced an NBC comedy—The Good Place—where he played a charming yet inefficient demon in charge of running his own neighborhood in Hell. Michael, a reformed hell-raiser who needed a team of humans in order to succeed and “be good,” managed to be instantly engaging as a character. In the new NBC sitcom Mr. Mayor, Danson effectively plays a toned-down version of Michael: He’s a millionaire widower named Neil Bremer who is now responsible for managing Los Angeles as the city’s newly elected but clueless mayor. Danson is a great actor with terrific roles in his TV resume, ranging from Cheers to Bored to Death to The Good Place. His affable presence as the titular protagonist elevates Mr. Mayor to some degree but the show, created and written by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, is too simple and generic to stand out. At least, the first two episodes are.

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Fey and Carlock originally envisioned the sitcom to be a 30 Rock spin-off centered on Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin, and his political career in New York City. However, Mr. Mayor struggles with writing and humor. So far, it possesses neither the sardonic wit it needs to pass as a political satire (think Veep) or the emotional anchors required for a workplace comedy (think Parks and Recreation). The lack of grasp on its own voice, despite worthy actors in its ensemble, makes Mr. Mayor feel like a jumbled-up version of several previous comedies but hopefully with room to grow as the season progresses.

The pilot establishes that Neil, a former outdoor advertising magnate, ran for mayor on a whim in a post-COVID-19 world. Dolly Parton provided everyone with a vaccine, and with that, the pandemic is mostly glossed over, even as Los Angeles remains badly affected by it in real life. Neil won 68% of the total vote (of the 8% of the city’s population that voted in the first place, it’s quickly clarified) and remains mostly unaware of what to do next. He asks questions like “When did elite become a bad word?”, and is specifically advised not to speak Spanish during a press conference. Neil’s first ruling is to issue a citywide plastic straw ban, an issue his outspoken daughter Orly (Kyla Kennedy) stands firmly on in her own run for class president. Neil and Orly’s fun dynamic is the biggest draw of Mr. Mayor. He retired after his wife’s death eight years ago, and it’s obvious he ran for mayor to impress his daughter. Their relationship has the potential to be one of the emotional anchors the show needs.

The first episode also carries out the duty of introducing the rest of the characters, but saddles them with limited descriptors. Arpi (Holly Hunter), a district councilwoman, comes with a bad wig and the tropes of what the world assumes an Angeleno activist might look and act like (Vegan? check! Carrying an office in a backpack? Check! Wearing a blazer over a shirt over a t-shirt? Check!). By the end of the first half-hour, she has managed to go from Neil’s vocal critic to his deputy mayor. Neil’s chief-of-staff Mikaela (Vella Lovell) is a sharp millennial Instagram influencer who isn’t sure she wants to work for the accidental mayor but decides to continue anyway; communications manager Jayden (Bobby Moynihan) is a total goof; and strategist Tommy (Mike Cabellon) is...focused? excited? It’s hard to tell just yet.

It’s difficult to gauge just how good a comedy—especially a network sitcom airing every week instead of the now-popular binge model—is in its initial episodes. Previous NBC successes like Parks And Recreation and The Office are prime examples of how workplace humor can evolve over time and flesh out character arcs. Unfortunately, this practice of patience might not favor Mr. Mayor. Besides a formulaic start, the timing is excruciating. The country is already facing real-world consequences of what happens when someone inexperienced unexpectedly takes office and becomes a political leader. Mr. Mayor tries to pass this concept off for laughs and cutesy moments. Besides a scene with Mikaela freaking out over Neil’s unexpected rise, there are no self-aware jokes about how a wealthy white man elected to a position of power does not deserve or know what to do with it. The show feels both too timely and yet a little out of time, like it belonged in the Thursday night lineup in the late 2000s, with Fey’s 30 Rock.

In the era of Peak TV, it’s entirely possible that a subpar network comedy like this one—with its reliable heroes and predictable, sappy narratives—is exactly what audiences need. It’s an escape from the incorporation of the pandemic to which other shows have resorted. No one in Mr. Mayor wears a mask or dwells on the months spent in quarantine. It’s set up in the political sphere but the comedy doesn’t seem like it’s geared up to tackle serious issues straight out of news headlines. No real-life political figures are mentioned by name. Neil’s biggest tasks, as seen in the second episode titled “Mayor’s Day Out,” range from attending a photo-op at a high school for Meatless Monday to judging a Cutest Grandpa competition. He would rather solve real problems like homelessness but since that’s not happening, Neil gets high on weed gummies obtained from the 10,000th dispensary that he opened in the city.

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Arpi’s personality is half-baked and mousy in “Mayor’s Day Out,” as she carries a binder for her agenda named PPPORN, an acronym for “Private Plane Paths Over Residential Neighborhoods,” to work on the high noise pollution levels over poorer districts. She involves Mikaela in a scheme straight out of Pawnee to help her and in return, Neil’s chief-of-staff gets to secretly babysit his nemesis. Meanwhile, Jayden and Tommy try their hardest to make sure their boss doesn’t turn into a meme while he’s high, but the impeccably weird way in which Neil eats his pizza slice (rolling it up like only a Bad Place demon would do!) goes viral. At the end of the day, Neil gets to bond with Orly some more and Mikaela learns an important lesson in bureaucracy, but the laughs are too few. It doesn’t mean the quips aren’t there, but they’re not sharp enough, and even a noteworthy cast often cannot make them land. The sitcom seems to be opting for light-heartedness in times of unrest, but that can only be attained if it at least delivers the right material to its talented cast. Mr. Mayor has its work cut out for itself.

Stray observations

  • Yes, that was Rachel Dratch and Benito Martinez in quick cameos in episode one as Orly’s high school teacher and the former mayor, respectively.
  • Ted Danson and Holly Hunter are the two big names, but it’s the supporting cast that really deserves merit (and, at the risk of repetition, much better material), especially Kyla Kennedy, who is fabulous and almost an extension of Dylan, her character from the gone-too-soon Speechless.
  • Mikaela gets the best one-liners, like the pilot’s “Biracial Twitter is going to come for me” and episode two’s “This is what change looks like. I am the first woman of color without a Master’s degree to serve as chief-of-staff.” It’s a good thing Vella Lovell really delivers.
  • It’s okay if viewers aren’t tuned into Los Angeles. Fey and Carlock do a fine, if somewhat gimmicky, job bringing out the weirdness and coolness of the city. Let’s hope they take inspiration from how they depicted New York City in their previous endeavors 30 Rock and especially Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
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Staff Writer (TV)