It was the demonic Shawn of The Good Place who said he took the form of a white man for one reason: he could “only fail”. Ted Danson is far from a good spot on NBC’s Mr. Mayor, but he plays a man who definitely failed. In his career. Unfortunately not in the quality of the show.
Mr. Mayor, which premieres on Thursday, will play Danson as Neil Bremer, the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles. Bremer, a former outdoor advertising bigwig (think of him as Don Draper of Nurse Jackie Billboards), came out of retirement apparently running for mayor on a whim, though he eventually admits it’s his teenage daughter, Orly (Kyla Kenedy), a plan that seriously failed. Orly is appalled that he won. So does the new chief of staff Mikaela (Vella Lovell), the PR assistant who brought him here and now has to make the most of it.
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In short, Neil has no idea what he’s doing. The problem is that the show doesn’t either. Created by Tina Fey and her 30-rock co-showrunner Robert Carlock, Mr. Mayor hasn’t figured out if local government likes it – or people in general. In the first two episodes, made available to critics, the tone sways inconsistently between Veep’s political cynicism and Parks and Recreation’s gentle amusement with all that bureaucracy. It’s not always clear whether we should care about the characters or just laugh at their bloated ego.
Perhaps if it were funnier to write, its confused tone would be easier to forgive. There’s a touch of 30 Rocks madness in some of his best jokes, but Mr. Mayor – originally conceived as a New York spin-off for Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy – feels most like 30 Rock when it sets his sense of humor up the wrong goals. The pilot takes over the demolition culture, with the nuance of Mr. Bean influencing the demolition culture. Now everything is problematic! it shrugs its shoulders and stands there. “Did you post the black square on Instagram?” Holly Hunter’s Arpi Meskimen asks Neil. “Anyway, how dare you.” As Arpi, a self-righteous, cereal-crunching councilor, Hunter is trapped in a horrific wig and has an ungrateful role as the mayor’s punching bag activist. Whether Mr. Mayor gets nicer or more caustic at some point won’t be revealed until Arpi finds out.
Orly, a satire of Gen Z vigilance, doesn’t fare much better, but at least the Bremen-based father-daughter relationship is warm, which has the potential to become the heart of the show. When Neil and Orly put their masks on each other, they’re cute. (Those are metaphorical masks; Mr. Mayor plays on a timeline where COVID-19 existed but was eradicated because “Dolly Parton bought everyone a vaccine”) As for the sitcom legend at the center of the show, Dansons is Attitude towards Neil is basically a repetition of the well-meaning but clueless fish-out-of-water act he perfected on The Good Place. The fact that he’s so naturally personable makes it harder for the show to impale his privilege, but it’s fun to watch and find humor in lines that wouldn’t be funny in any other mouth.
If you’re a single issue sitcom viewer, that might be enough. Even if it’s not yet as fun as it should be, and even if I’m embarrassed to admit it about the show, I’ve laughed – more than once! – with the mayor. A handful of laughs and a top-notch cast could help the new comedy fail in its first term. But when it comes to re-election, Mr. Mayor has to find out what it stands for.
TV Guide rating: 2/5
Mr. Mayor premieres on NBC Thursday, January 7th at 8/7 am.