‘Mr. Mayor’ is an outsider’s comedy about L.A. But don’t give up on it just yet

Ted Danson, left, and Bobby Moynihan in NBC's "Mr. Mayor."
Ted Danson, left, as Mayor Neil Bremer and Bobby Moynihan as Jayden Kwapis in NBC’s “Mr. Mayor.”
(Mitchell Haddad/NBC)

With “Mr. Mayor,” Robert Carlock and Tina Fey of “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” fame take their satirical live-action cartoon machine west to Los Angeles, enlisting Ted Danson in a promising semi-political comedy about a semi-political mayor. (It is not “Veep: L.A.,” nor it is related to the tragicomedy currently being played out in our actual halls of power.)

Danson plays Neil Bremer, a rich Los Angeles businessman — locals with a moderately long memory may think of Richard Riordan — who finds himself the city’s mayor, almost by accident — which may briefly call to mind Donald Trump, though that is where that resemblance ends. Bremer has pulled himself out of lethargic retirement in part to cut a better figure in the eyes of his daughter, Orly (Kyla Kenedy), who resents him in a reflexive teenage way — “Stop controlling my narrative,” she’ll say — which is to say she also doesn’t. (In fact, Danson and Kenedy have the show’s best chemistry.)

It’s not surprising to learn that the series, which premieres Thursday on NBC, had its beginnings as a “30 Rock” spinoff to star Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy in a political setting, and that the location changed with the casting of Danson, who didn’t want to leave L.A. It’s an odd fit. Where politics is a form of sport in New York, it is almost an afterthought in Los Angeles, a kind of civic annoyance like a parking ticket or jury duty summons that otherwise exists as a barely audible background hum. That City Hall used to play the Daily Planet in the old George Reeves “Superman” series is the kind of thing we know around here.


“30 Rock” had the advantage of being observed from the inside — Fey and Carlock are both “Saturday Night Live” vets — and both that series and “Kimmy Schmidt” are love letters to everything great and awful about New York City. Los Angeles, though it has been satirized for years and years, with distaste from without and tenderness from within, is a harder place to get a hold of, especially for those who bring their imported notions about what constitutes a city to a place that has long eluded a civic identity. Carlock and Fey have some experience of the town, obviously, and do recognize its fundamental ephemerality — a chyron in a news report throws scare quotes around “community” and “center” — but one doesn’t quite feel the quality of deep, brutalized affection that animates their earlier shows. Rather, we get references to or jokes about Kendall Jenner, traffic on La Brea, Scientology, Angelyne, “For Your Consideration” billboards, Van Nuys Airport, El Segundo, eating in the car, Spanish words, pot dispensaries (Bremer is cutting a ribbon on L.A.’s 10,000th), Los Angeles Kings mascot Bailey the lion and “Alf Jr. High School, which is named after Alf from the show ‘ALF’ — so much history in this city.” It’s carpetbagger humor.

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Bobby Moynihan, left,  Mike Cabellon and Vella Lovell in NBC's "Mr. Mayor."
Bobby Moynihan as Jayden Kwapis, Mike Cabellon as Tommy Tomás, Vella Lovell as Mikaela Shaw in NBC’s “Mr. Mayor.”
(Tina Thorpe/NBC)

The COVID-19 question is soon raised — in a flashback news report, there are masks and a slightly distasteful joke about a remote learning app — and quickly dispatched with the line, “Dolly Parton bought everyone a vaccine.” So that’s over.

On the basis of the two episodes available to review, “Mr. Mayor” is fine; given the talent on both sides of the camera, I expect it to get better. It’s a high bar the creators have set, to be sure. There is as yet no figure as grandly eccentric or eccentrically grand as those played by Tracy Morgan and Jack McBrayer on “30 Rock” or Tituss Burgess and Carol Kane on “Kimmy Schmidt,” or by Jane Krakowski on both. Bobby Moynihan’s disheveled “interim communications director” Jayden Kwapis — who wears prescription sandals because of “podiatric claustrophobia” and mistakes Bremer’s daughter for his wife (“It is very confusing in L.A.”) — does possess some promising bigness. But Vella Lovell as Mikaela Shaw, who as Bremer’s campaign manager “made that old white man seem cogent and cool” and is now “the first woman of color without a master’s degree to serve as chief of staff, hashtag ‘progress,’ hashtag ‘one filter,’” needs more definition. Mike Cabellon, as “chief strategist” Tommy Tomás, has even less.

Conversely, there is Holly Hunter’s Arpi Meskimen, whom we meet as a “super-liberal” councilperson representing “East Hollywood, Little Bangladesh and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery” and who would like to get rid of Bob’s Big Boy (the statue, not the coffee shop) because “it whitewashes the labor force and gives me sexual nightmares.” Her character is so insistent an antagonist that she seems a little isolated from the rest of the cast. These things can change — and likely will.

But already there is Danson, a boyish 73, and having, as he seems always to have, the time of his life. If there were a Mt. Rushmore of Television Comedians, his face could be carved on it four times. (Obviously, we would need a bigger Mt. Rushmore.) Coming almost straight out of “The Good Place,” he is on similar ground as a decent sort finding his footing in a new job and a little slow about some of what he finds there. (“He thinks Santa Monica is part of Los Angeles,” Mikaela sniffs). But Danson has found his light and is waiting comfortably in it for the rest of the show to catch up. I can wait too.


‘Mr. Mayor’

Where: NBC

When: 8 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)