Tina Fey’s latest is a well-intentioned, but only occasionally diverting, COVID-set political sitcom with more good intentions than good jokes.
NBC’s new sitcom Mr. Mayor will inevitably be compared to 30 Rock, the network’s previous sitcom from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Both feature rich men in power butting heads with their female colleagues. Both shows share a composer, Jeff Richmond (also an executive producer, and Fey’s spouse) crafting another bouncy score. Different from her New York-based shows (30 Rock, Great News, Kimmy Schmidt) Fey and company take on Los Angeles politics this time. While occasionally funny, the show fails to instill a vote of confidence in the future of the series.
Mr. Mayor follows retired businessman Neil Bremer (Ted Danson) in a post-quarantine Los Angeles, recently winning a special election after the previous Mayor had a mental breakdown from dealing with the trials of the pandemic. Neil soon realizes he’s out of his element, a belief shared by his Chief of Staff Mikaela Shaw (Vella Lovell) and Chief Strategist Tommy Tomás (Mike Cabellon). There’s also a political rivalry brewing between Bremer and progressive Councilmember Arpi Meskimen (Holly Hunter), and the whole staff-cleaning-up-after-a-bumbling-mayor ends up feeling a bit like a 21st-century version of Spin City.
Complicating matters is a trying relationship with teenage daughter Orly (Kyla Kenedy), who has political aspirations of her own (she’s running for Sophomore class president at her high school). The only person who seems in awe of Mayor Bremer is interim Director of Communications Jayden Kwapis (Bobby Moynihan), a naive fool whom Mikaela and Tommy decide to keep around, in case they have to throw anyone under a bus. (He also seems to serve as the sole vehicle for Fey’s rapid-fire joke machine approach that worked so well on her previous shows.)
The best thing going for Mr. Mayor is the cast, especially Hunter and Danson, who can expertly match Fey and Carlock’s fast-paced comedic sensibilities. Danson, coming off the success of The Good Place, channels his smiling, demonic energy into the bumbling Bremer. Hunter is excellent as well, playing Arpi as an intimidating power-player with her own stack of binders full of policies and plans (think Amy Klobuchar meets Leslie Knope). They’re a political odd-couple, the progressive Arpi pushing against rich-man-turned-politician Neil.
The show, much like Bremer himself, feels like it lucked into getting a primetime slot, and is now scrambling to figure out where it stands. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see Mr. Mayor crack jokes about progressive politics with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. In the pilot episode, they make fun of a plastic straw ban that Bremer tries to institute on his first day. He thinks it’s a foolproof plan (nevermind that he stole the idea from his daughter’s class president campaign) and that he’s saving the environment. Meskiman pushes against the ban, advocating for the disabled community who require straws to drink. The payoff for the joke is that Bremer realizes he can’t govern alone and appoints Arpi to Deputy Mayor.
But underpinning the show’s premise is a frustratingly all-too-familiar situation: an experienced unlikeable woman losing to an inexperienced likable man. In the pilot, we learn that Arpi wanted to run for Mayor, but failed to garner enough signatures to get on the ballot. Therefore, the only way to advance her career is to become Deputy Mayor and hope that Bremer will implode so she’ll get the job. It’s a decently funny premise — think a comedic twist on House of Cards — but we hear this theory from other characters, instead of hearing directly from the character herself.
A white guy who gets lucky in an election cycle is something we’ve all seen before. A more interesting take would be to lead with the woman aiming to take down her candidate from inside the administration. The second episode hints at Arpi’s ambitions as she turns the tables on Mikaela after a day of exchanging political favors for decorating tape. Hopefully future episodes will focus more on Arpi’s manipulation of Mayor Bremer and his team, as the show needs an antagonizing force. Hunter has the chops, a history of playing fiercely powerful women, like Jane Craig in Broadcast News. I want to see Arpi throw down and show everyone she is the smartest person in the room.
Looking back at 30 Rock, the dynamic between leads Jack and Liz worked because their arguments often revealed they were more alike than different. After two episodes of Mr. Mayor, I can’t say the same charm is there for Neil and Arpi. 30 Rock had seven seasons to evolve Jack and Liz’s friendship, but Mr. Mayor might not have that luxury. Liz in 30 Rock would crack jokes about the death of network comedies, and that was before the broadcast model had to deal with streaming giants and a global pandemic shutting down production (Mr. Mayor halted production in December due to spikes in Covid-19). I hope the death of network comedies is still far off, but it’s too early for me to say that I’d vote for Mr. Mayor to save us from that doom.
The first two episodes were made available for review.
Mr. Mayor airs Thursdays on NBC.