In the first episode of NBC’s “Mr. Mayor,” bumbling businessman-turned-mayor of Los Angeles Neil Bremer (Ted Danson) is worried about “getting canceled” after botching a policy announcement and making some political enemies on his first day in office.
“I don’t like being told I’m problematic,” he says to his chief strategist, Tommy Tomás (Mike Cabellon).
“Cancellation comes for us all,” Tommy tells him.
“I avoided all the mines in the minefield, and I am still getting crucified,” Bremer says. “Am I allowed to say ‘crucified’?”
“Of course. It was a different time … one second ago,” Tommy says.
The obvious commentary on so-called cancel culture quickly becomes tiresome. These days, watching a show set in the world of politics and government is already difficult, and “Mr. Mayor,” co-created by Tina Fey and her frequent collaborator Robert Carlock, is just … aggressively fine. Although the workplace comedy’s first two episodes, which premiered Thursday, are underwhelming compared to Fey’s prior sitcoms (“30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), “Mr. Mayor” is already emblematic of both the best and worst of the Tina Fey TV universe. Her shows are great when their densely packed jokes and plotlines involve punching up, when the subjects of their mockery have ample power. But when the jokes and plotlines punch down and take unnecessary digs, the shows become more frustrating to watch.
There are several other cringey moments in the first episode of “Mr. Mayor.” Bremer has landed in hot water because he proposed a ban on plastic straws, which sparks criticism from a political rival, progressive councilwoman Arpi Meskimen (Holly Hunter). Meskimen teams up with a group of local disability rights activists, who hold a protest against the ban. The show weirdly mocks the activists, via a line of dialogue that does not serve any narrative purpose. In another scene, Bremer’s communications director, Jayden Kwapis (Bobby Moynihan), tells the mayor that Meskimen supports referring to coyotes as “mini-wolves” because she believes using the word “coyote” is cultural appropriation. The joke doesn’t really land and comes off as if it’s dismissing actual forms of cultural appropriation.
Fey has never been great at addressing similar misfires in her earlier work. Last summer, at her request, NBC removed from streaming platforms several episodes of “30 Rock” in which characters wore blackface. Fey issued an apology, but it referred euphemistically to “race-changing makeup.” In addition, she avoided a real conversation about why the show thought blackface was acceptable in the first place.
Blackface in “30 Rock” was only the tip of the iceberg. The show had a long record of racist, transphobic and ableist jokes and storylines. The throwaway bit about disability rights activists in “Mr. Mayor” is reminiscent of how “30 Rock” often made disabled people the subjects of ridicule. For instance, in one episode in Season 3, Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) has a crush on a woman who is blind. He is too shy to talk to her, so he enlists Tracy (Tracy Morgan) to pretend to be him, with the “joke” being that she can’t tell them apart.
More recently, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” featured a slew of racist stereotypes in its portrayals of Asian and Native American characters. In the show’s second season, Fey appeared to respond to criticism by writing an episode mocking internet criticism. Titus (Tituss Burgess) becomes embroiled in controversy when he takes a role as a geisha wearing yellowface. He gets called out online by an activist group called Respectable Asian Portrayals in Entertainment (RAPE). The activists are portrayed as too fervent, overly sensitive and rushing to judgment. (Perhaps the first episode of “Mr. Mayor” is a similar attempt at meta-commentary.)
Fey’s shows excel when they find clever ways to point out the absurdities of people and institutions that already have plenty of power. Over the years, the part of “30 Rock” that has held up the best is its skewering of the business of television and corporate culture more broadly. The show’s profusion of jokes about indecipherable business jargon, product placement, company mergers and the boundless confidence of mediocre white men often went over my head when I watched it as a teenager. But now that I’m an adult working at a media company owned by a telecom company, they seem much more relevant and more laugh-out-loud funny.
Though not as sharp and cutting as “30 Rock,” “Mr. Mayor” finds more of its stride when it makes Bremer’s mediocrity and overconfidence the punchline. For example, at his first press conference as mayor, Bremer explains that he made his fortune selling billboard space. (One of his bestselling billboards, he says, was “For Your Consideration: Nurse Jackie” — an example of joke density, another signature element of the Tina Fey TV universe.)
Unlike the first episode, the second episode lands much better by poking fun at the photo ops and ribbon cuttings that fill Bremer’s days as mayor. His staff advises him not to do anything that could turn him into an embarrassing meme.
“That’s why we avoid bathing suits, dancing at a cultural day, and above all, eating on camera,” Jayden says.
But sure enough, in one of the many gaffes he commits that day, Bremer visits a school and eats a slice of pizza (on camera, of course) by rolling it up and holding it like a burrito. Earlier in the day, he cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of a weed dispensary and then eats too many weed gummies.
Danson and Hunter are delightful as the show’s chief adversaries. Meskimen is rightly displeased at how Bremer was able to coast into the mayorship because he is a rich, mediocre, white man.
“We can find some common ground here. We’re both the same age,” Bremer tells Meskimen after the plastic straw ban debacle.
“I am 10 years younger than you,” Meskimen responds. “But I’m perceived as a kooky old woman, and you’re still a sexually viable man.”
Despite the sitcom’s unevenness so far, their sparring makes “Mr. Mayor” worth watching because it keeps the focus on Bremer’s ridiculous foibles. Hopefully, the show will continue to lean into their rivalry, rather than veering off into more, uh, problematic territory.
“Mr. Mayor” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
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