'Mr. Mayor': TV Review

Mr. Mayor Pilot Episode
Mitchell Haddad/NBC
Disappointingly generic in its early outings.
1/7/2021

Ted Danson and Holly Hunter star in Tina Fey's new NBC workplace comedy about a retired businessman who thrusts himself into L.A. politics.

For the past decade and a half, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s shows have been synonymous with Manhattan. After meeting on Saturday Night Live, the longtime writing partners collaborated on 30 Rock, named after the Midtown landmark, then co-created Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which contrasted the tony Upper West Side with the rapidly gentrifying (and fictional) neighborhood of East Dogmouth. Kimmy Schmidt, in particular, felt rooted in New York like few shows do, weaving together Broadway, street harassment, urban anonymity, celebrity dermatologists, aggressive Times Square performers, anger at Bill de Blasio and disappointment about never-built subway lines into a barb-laced tapestry.

But for their latest series, NBC’s Mr. Mayor, Carlock and Fey land in Los Angeles — specifically, a post-pandemic L.A. that’s returned to normal. People are out and about, masks are a distant memory and Neil Bremer (Ted Danson), an overconfident businessman with no political experience, has just gotten himself elected mayor. Lest you start getting orange-tinged PTSD flashbacks, the creators clarify in a letter to critics that the show isn’t about politics, but a “return to what we love most — ensemble workplace comedy among a coterie of weirdos.”

NBC only sent two episodes for review, so it’s difficult to make pronouncements on such a small sampling. But whereas Kimmy Schmidt sprung confidently out of the gate, Mr. Mayor wobbles and sways in these earlier chapters, despite terrific sparring partners in Danson and Holly Hunter. Fey and Carlock may see their new show as a homecoming of sorts, but it’s just as easy to view the duo as leaning away from their strengths and toward impulses that have recently left a sour taste in even some of their biggest fans’ mouths.

Especially on the heels of Kimmy Schmidt (which concluded with a thoughtful interactive special just last May), Mr. Mayor looks and feels shockingly generic. (Danson’s styling even resembles that of Barry Bostwick’s WASPy mayor in the 1996-2002 series Spin City.) The creators’ trademark joke density, in which gags are piled on top of another with thrillingly Jenga-esque precarity, is evident in the pilot, which I needed to watch twice to catch all the quips (a 30 Rock habit I'm happy to continue). But even Carlock and Fey’s frenzied comic pacing disappeared by the deflatingly plotted second installment, in which Neil vexes his handlers (Bobby Moynihan and Mike Cabellon) by insisting on completing a day of photo-ops after getting accidentally high.

The mayor’s office is where the show is weakest thus far — but also where it holds the most promise to grow. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell co-stars as Neil’s reluctant chief of staff Mikaela — a millennial marketing wunderkind who took on the task of getting her boss elected mostly as a lark. (“I am the first woman of color without a master’s degree to be a chief of staff,” she brags to her online followers.) It’s less clear what her more dedicated colleague, Tommy (Cabellon), sees in Neil. But they’re in agreement that “when it’s time to throw someone under the bus,” office eccentric Jayden (Moynihan) can be turned into their “bus meat.”

Opposition to the mayor’s first initiatives come swiftly from sharp-tongued, bleeding-heart city councilwoman Arpi (Hunter in the world’s ugliest wig). Simultaneously embodying and making fun of her signature hyper-intensity, Hunter is frequently framed like a Napoleonic Hobbit, her short stature and raccoon-like attack-readiness — especially in contrast to Danson’s intimidated four-eyed beanpole — serving as one of the episodes’ few visual gags. It’s unclear how many of Arpi’s lefty causes — like proposing that coyotes be renamed “mini-wolves” to avoid “cultural appropriation” — as well as those of Neil’s teenage daughter Orly (Speechless’s Kyla Kenedy) are sincere and how many are merely being advanced to weaponize against the mayor. That inexactness in the show’s writing can’t help recalling the many under-thought missteps that quickly transformed Kimmy Schmidt from a critical darling to a cultural minefield.

The imprecision extends to the show’s many jokes about L.A. — a deceptively difficult city to lampoon without resorting to lazy gags and cobwebbed observations. The funniest joke the show manages in these initial episodes is that Neil’s rival candidates for the mayoral office included a “libertarian porn star” and “Gary Coleman’s ghost” — a wisecrack I smiled at until I realized the writers were sending up a gubernatorial election that took place almost two decades ago. Perhaps the remaining episodes will supply better gags or enough character development that the show won’t constantly conjure one of Fey’s immortal lines: She doesn't even go here!

Cast: Ted Danson, Holly Hunter, Bobby Moynihan, Vella Lovell, Mike Cabellon, Kyla Kenedy

Creators: Tina Fey, Robert Carlock

Showrunners: Tina Fey, Robert Carlock

Premieres Thursday, Jan. 7, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on NBC