It’s all politics these days, isn’t it? No matter what else you try to pay attention to, somehow it all gets dragged back to that civic muck: our wars over policy, language, money, morals. That is the riptide of our lives, so why bother trying to swim against it?
That may have been some of the reasoning behind Mr. Mayor (NBC, January 7), the new show from creators Robert Carlock and Tina Fey. Those two reigned supreme in the sitcom space for many years with 30 Rock (which Fey created and Carlock ran for several seasons), a series that often filtered broader issues through its petty microcosm of a little-watched and even less-loved network sketch show.
More recently, the legacy of 30 Rock (and that of Fey and Carlock’s followup, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) has been tarnished some. In its attempts to define the boundaries of political correctness, the show frequently transgressed in ugly ways: There was blackface, myriad more racial jokes, and many other violations of the social code that no longer seem protected by the shield of irony. 30 Rock’s cultural reconsideration falls within the larger contemporary reassessment of comedy—not so much a referendum on what can be joked about, but a discussion about who should be making those jokes. The series was a product of a time and place, some might argue, waving a forgiving hand—though that time was pretty recently, that place not far away at all. So why did 30 Rock get such a pass for so long?
Mr. Mayor seems to indicate that this debate has reached Carlock and Fey’s ears. The series frequently concerns itself with a booby-trapped process—the tricky balancing act of avoiding offense while still being forceful and effective. The series eschews the safely discrete world of corrupted show business and throws itself right into the the white-hot center of the discourse, following the mayor of Los Angeles—a sprawling and diverse city of nearly 4 million people.
Which is, in execution, a major mistake. 30 Rock’s contained environs meant that while the whole of the world could be bandied about within those narrow walls, the stakes remained pretty low. On occasion, of course, the series widened its reach, particularly when Alec Baldwin’s NBC/General Electric executive Jack Donaghy brought some nefarious political absurdity to bear on Fey’s Liz Lemon and her crew. Still, all their scheming and blundering was ultimately more a wry commentary on the annals of power than it was situated within the thing itself. Not so with Mr. Mayor, which is about an actual seat of real power—and thus too immediate, too pertinent a platform for Carlock and Fey’s brand of barbed but reckless satire.
The series was originally meant to be a spin-off for Jack, rooted in the same antic New York City as 30 Rock. But Baldwin left the project and Ted Danson stepped in, requiring the show to relocate to Los Angeles and adapt its purview to suit a new character. Danson is retired billboard magnate Neil Bremer, a dapper oaf who runs for mayor on a lark after the previous executive rage-quits amid the COVID-19 pandemic and other calamities. (This may be our first post-coronavirus series, debuting while we’re still very much mired in the catastrophe—Los Angeles perhaps most acutely at the moment.) In his incompetence—vaguely shaded in Trump-y tones, but perhaps more akin to California’s many technocrat carpetbaggers—Mayor Bremer reveals all the silly intricacies of modern governance. Or so the idea goes, I guess.
In practice, Mr. Mayor often feels like a vehicle for personal griping about a world gone mad with political correctness, values auditing, and cancel culture. (I really didn’t want to use that last phrase in this review, but it was probably unavoidable.) Much of Mr. Mayor’s first two episodes plays as axe grinding, like the annoyed tweets of people who have been called out for past problematic behavior, digging their heels in while feigning a bit of enlightened contrition. Carlock and Fey are entitled to their indignation, I suppose, but we are certainly not required—nor, increasingly, inclined—to enjoy it.
Contained within the pilot alone are two nearly back-to-back jokes about bi- or multiracial identity, held up dryly as examples of an impossible to parse matrix of labels and community identifiers. An idealistic lefty politician, played by Holly Hunter (terrific here, and definitely better than the material), is depicted largely as a cynical operator with loony pet causes—as if to suggest, perhaps, that there is little true earnestness in social justice or other progressive political movements. It’s aiming at exposing hypocrisy, but ends up snidely nihilistic. The series is free-wheeling, almost alarmingly so, with its ultra-contemporary iconoclasm, but the zingers rarely land. The show is grumpy rather than irreverent, cranky instead of astutely sharp.
Again, we are talking about the mayor of a huge city here, a milieu that invites a much more glaring light down upon antipathetic politics than another showbiz spoof (or something similar) might have. Fey and Carlock’s house style doesn’t work so well when their characters have actual agency; it turns their narcissist fluster into real threat. (I suppose Jack Donaghy did wield some real clout, but his passions were more gonzo and abstract than literal municipal matters.)
What works best on Mr. Mayor is the goofier stuff, more timeless and less pointed gags amiably carried off by a game cast. I particularly guffawed at Bobby Moynihan’s hapless aide being “one of the oldest Jaydens you’re likely to meet,” and at a public school called Alf Junior High, after the TV alien. “So much history in this city,” Moynihan’s character says, solemnly considering that ridiculous name. That’s a great (and dumb) little dig at Los Angeles’s imagined culturelessness, another salvo in an ever-raging coastal war. (The many L.A. jokes in the series are otherwise broad and stale.)
There is wit in Mr. Mayor, and great performers like Moynihan and Hunter to further enliven it. I wish the show was sturdier with the character played by Vella Lovell, a standout from My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; her Mikaela is slotted sort of into the Jenna Maroney role, but is also sometimes positioned as a salient voice for the young and woke. (As is Neil’s daughter, a cause-happy teen whose conviction is often shown to be flimsy and prideful.) That personality clash ends up rendering Mikaela curiously bland. The writers are too ambivalent toward her, somehow both mocking and assiduously careful about addressing her. I wish they allowed her to breathe a bit more, to have some fun with the vain and clueless wackadoodles around her.
It took a while for 30 Rock to find its stride, so perhaps there is still hope for Mr. Mayor. Then again, it could be argued that on its way to many bursts of greatness, 30 Rock (and Kimmy Schmidt) also did a lot wrong. That Mr. Mayor starts with so much error might not be a great sign. From what I’ve seen so far, the series is too haunted by its creators’ conflicted legacies and, frankly, by Veep—a no-holds-barred political rumble that was exacting in its offense.
The sunny-acerbic-who, me? tone of Mr. Mayor doesn’t graft onto that tortured process nearly as well. I still prefer its occasional bite to the cloying twee of, say, Parks & Recreation—another political series that arrived as something of a followup to a lower-stakes workplace smash (The Office in that case). But Mr. Mayor has yet to earn much, if any, affection. It’s a show about a mayor with no clothes that doesn’t see its own aggressive nakedness, a series about an out-of-touch zillionaire whose own millionaire creators seem awfully out of it themselves.
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