To request every show feature Ted Danson getting outrageously stoned may be an unreasonable ask, but it would indisputably be for the betterment of TV. “Bored to Death” proved as much, building Danson’s series-long arc around his magazine editor’s penchant for good pot, and altered-state shenanigans served up intermittent joy in “The Good Place.” That Danson himself delights in the drug is nearly irrelevant; as fun as it is to share in the actor’s obvious glee over everyday minutiae and unjustified paranoia, the nuanced thespian still crafts each onscreen bake as carefully and methodically as an aspiring Star Baker. Every high is different, which makes each new performance an additive experience to his canon of cannabis, rather than merely a nostalgic reflection on past highlights.
Which leads us to “Mr. Mayor.” Adapted from a “30 Rock” spinoff idea where Jack (Alec Baldwin) would take up politics after leaving GE, executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock instead hired Danson to star as the new mayor. As Neil Bremer, a rich retiree who ran for office in order to set a better example for his teenage daughter, Orly (Kyla Kenedy) — and just happened to win — the former “Cheers” lead isn’t playing a pothead. Neil is more of a “glass of white wine after dinner” kind of guy, but he does mistakenly take a couple of edibles in Episode 2, “Mayor’s Day Out,” which gives Danson all the room he needs to make an indelible, endearing impression on audiences.
And that, so far, is the major takeaway from the nascent sitcom. Despite gathering a team of verified NBC all-stars — the creators of “30 Rock,” the star of “Cheers” and “The Good Place” — not to mention Holly Freaking Hunter, “Mr. Mayor” is mostly a testament to the towering talent at the helm. Yes, the dialogue is filled with quippy pop culture jokes and the story structure is clear, clean, and inviting. Yes, the rest of the cast is strong, and Bobby Moynihan may have finally found the right supporting role for his particular talents. But Danson remains the draw among a show filled with draws. He earns your attention by adding a twist on a routine line or a fresh reaction to predictable events. Even after four decades of close weekly scrutiny, he’s literally always worth watching.
And thus, so is “Mr. Mayor” — at least, for now. The pilot and subsequent episode, airing together on premiere night, are broad entertainment. Fey and Carlock aren’t trying to take a political stance or even mock the faulty foundation of the system itself (a la “Veep”). They’re building a workplace comedy around a likable cast, where each week, the mayor and his staff will be thrown a public curveball with moderate stakes that ultimately brings them all closer together. Real-world issues (like racial disparity in marijuana-related arrests) may be name-checked, but they’re not the focus of episodes or character arcs; they’re fodder for comedy, which works just fine.
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Hunter’s character comes the closest to standing for something. Whereas Mayor Bremer’s political aspirations are “be the best dad for my daughter and the city of Los Angeles,” Arpi Meskimen is a lifelong advocate who’s spent her time on city council working hard to get her progressive agendas enacted. She fights on behalf of working class Angelenos’ air quality and speaks up for the voiceless coyote, who has the right to be called a “mini-wolf.” Their yin and yang dynamic isn’t unlike Liz and Jack’s on “30 Rock,” though there’s no mentor/mentee aspect; they’re simply playing the nice versions of “both sides.”
Arpi is the living embodiment of the ultra left-wing, championing inane causes while keeping the mayor grounded. Bremer is the rich, old, white guy — a descriptor Fey and Carlock lean into during the pilot — who’s nonetheless empathetic, kind-hearted, and similarly distanced from reality’s malicious Republicans he’d otherwise represent. (The show also makes Bremer smart enough to be capable, and thus mostly dodges any unwanted comparisons to another rich, unfit leader who unexpectedly inherits a position of power resulting in significant and lasting damage.)
All of this could change next week. Broadcast sitcoms develop over the course of their first season, if not the first few, and “Mr. Mayor” will undoubtedly adapt as viewers respond and the writers learn what kind of story they’re telling. But for now, despite all the big names involved, what’s crystal clear is that Danson can carry just about anything. In his last role on “The Good Place,” he was surrounded by bizarre creative choices and exciting narrative twists; that’s the kind of show Michael Schur & Co. were making, and the actor fit right in. Here, he’s in a more conventional sitcom, but he still takes the universal and makes it specific; he plays a joke written for everyone so that it feels uniquely tailored to you. Danson doesn’t have to be high to elevate the material, but hey, it also doesn’t hurt.
“Mr. Mayor” premieres Thursday, January 7 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.