How 'The Mayor' Examines the Struggles of Celebrity Politicians in the Trump Era

'The Mayor' (ABC)
Courtesy of ABC

ABC president Channing Dungey announced Tuesday at the network's Upfront presentation that the comedy will feature original music from exec producer and Tony winner Daveed Diggs, who is fresh off his breakout turn in Hamilton.

When you grow up in America, odds are that at some point you are told that you could one day become president if you played our cards right. The problem is that once you get a little older and learn how the system actually works, you realize those encouraging words are kind of like being told there’s a Santa Claus.

The notion of an average citizen finding success running for any office without any political experience seems as crazy as running a marathon after a lifetime spent on the couch binging on double-stuffed Oreos. However, now that Americans live in a world where a billionaire reality TV host can become president, all bets are off.

Which brings us to the new ABC series The Mayor. The half-hour comedy, about a young rapper named Courtney Rose (Brandon Micheal Hall) who runs for mayor of his small Bay Area town on a lark and shocks everyone by winning, wasn’t inspired by Donald Trump’s victory. However, The Mayor and Trump's presidency do have one common thread: both are televised tales about larger-than-life outsiders who know how to mobilize the masses.

“I’ve always been interested in this kind of story,” explains creator and executive producer Jeremy Bronson, who earlier in his career worked as a producer on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris Matthews. “I’ve wanted to do a political show for a long time, using the point of view of a charismatic leader. When we’d work on Hardball shows done on location, the ones I was most drawn to were involving city political races. In particular, we once hosted a New Orleans mayoral debate post-Katrina and it got me thinking about what it means for a city to be in crisis and need a leader for the community.”

The result of that curiosity is the central character in The Mayor, young rap artist Courtney Rose, who still lives with his mother (Yvette Nicole Brown) and hangs out with his best friends (Bernard David Jones, Marcel Spears). Inspired as much by a desire to peddle his music as his interest in hometown politics, the character “is dismissed by everybody… people assume he’s running as a publicity stunt and doesn’t really want to win,” Bronson says.

However, as the series progresses, Bronson says it will become clear that “he does have a skill set and knowledge base that will serve him well. He’s not just a rapper and poet but also a social observer who has spent time thinking about the issues affecting himself, his mom and his city.”

Adds Hall, “The story really shows people that if you have a dream, you can do it no matter what your circumstances might be. It was important for me to play a character that is as forward-thinking as Courtney, to show someone who is willing to not only follow his dreams but to take on the responsibility of helping see their own potential along the way.”

That description fits the actor as well as his character. The Julliard-trained Hall isn’t a professional rapper (“I can freestyle with my cousins and family members”) but he does relate to Rose because “I grew up seeing the stress my mother had from being a single mom and living in the circumstances we did so I’ve always wanted to be someone who gave back to his community and his mom. We talk a lot about it on the set, how Courtney’s storyline is parallel to my own.”

Given the show’s timing, Bronson and Hall are keenly aware how easy it would be for their story of a political outsider suddenly winding up on the inside to get caught up in Trump comparisons. They also want to make it clear there’s more going on than that.

“If we made it just about Trump, though, we’d be overlooking a whole slew of other politicians who didn’t have much political education but did get into office and were effective,” says Hall. “So we can’t just be about him.”

That’s why, upon getting the role, Hall immediately started researching upstart politicians around the country. That included a three-hour chat with Brighton Mayor Brandon Dean, the 24-year-old who became Alabama’s youngest mayor last year. They talked about the "type of stuff he’s had to go through being a young black mayor.”

Hall also explored what it’s like to grow up in a small town like Courtney’s fictional home of Fort Grey, courtesy of Mayor executive producer and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs.

“He asked if I’d ever been to Oakland, because the show is set near Oakland, and I told him no,” explains Hall. “He said, ‘Pick a day and I’ll drop you off there. I bought a ticket and sure enough, he took me and I just chilled for three days around the bay. I hung out with his friends and got a better understanding of the environment he and Courtney came from.”

All of this research has helped created what Bronson hopes will be a very realistic tone that doesn’t treat its premise like a standard sitcom set-up. “Going all the way back to the pitch for this show, there’s never been a moment where I thought about making it about a bumbling politician or a dopey guy. It was always about someone many people dismiss but in the end, they can’t. I wanted Courtney to be a good person who really wants to fulfill his responsibilities as a mayor.”

The plan to normalize the idea of ordinary people making a run for political office has already found one supporter — Ken Bone, the red sweater-wearing average American who became an Internet sensation after last year’s second presidential debate.

“We’ve had enough career politicians running the show for a long time now,” he explains. “I hope that this show will serve a dual purpose. It can educate people about local government and how critical it is, as well as showing people that you don’t need to be a lifelong politician to get into community leadership and government.”

Getting average citizens involved in government, at least on a local level, is one thing, however, because we live in a world where a TV star is president, an action film star ran California and now a party-hearty rocker hopes to be a U.S. senator, celebrity seems almost like a prerequisite to win a high-level government gig. Does the visibility that comes with being an entertainer automatically give these candidates an electoral advantage?

Not necessarily, according to Henry Schafer, executive vp at brand specialist Q Scores. “The public awareness of these people does grow dramatically but their success ultimately depends on the type of celebrity they were before getting into politics,” explains Schafer. “If he or she comes into the situation seen as someone very issue-oriented as opposed to being a narcissistic type of person, there will be very different types of impact on the branding of that person once elected. Donald Trump became 1,000 percent more controversial than he already was when he ran.”

These days, he adds, the Trump brand is “definitely being affected,” and not in a particularly positive way. That’s why the 2016 presidential election doesn’t mean Hollywood is becoming the gateway to Washington.

“There was no greater movement toward celebrities running for office after Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger took political jobs,” Schafer says. “Seeing what’s going on with Trump, I think it’s probably creating more of an avoidance to do it now. I think I’m seeing celebs taking more of a back seat with all the controversy going on.”

Courtney Rose may not move or shake like a Trump, a Schwarzenegger, a Kid Rock or a Kanye, but the way Bronson sees it, The Mayor isn’t ultimately about the character’s words as a rapper. Rather, he hopes viewers be more intrigued by his deeds as a concerned citizen.

“I have found at least anecdotally that there is a real appetite for a show that is hopeful about social issues and communities and politics. They want something that is kind of an antidote to the cynicism that is rampant nowadays. I do think everyone has no choice but to be politically engaged these days. People who might not have paid attention to politics before are now, and that’s the world our show is tackling.”