Ted Danson Brings Oddball Laughs To a Relatively Low Key ‘Mr. Mayor’

Mr. Mayor” releases on NBC like a relic from some more innocent political age. Like most every other political comedy that has premiered since 2016, it faces the challenge of offering light humor at a time when the real headlines feel like vicious satire. It wants to be cute when our actual political leaders are either scary or tragically oddball. This wouldn’t necessarily be too much of a problem if it did strive for strong laughs. Ted Danson  is certainly up to the task. He has the look and voice to actually run for office, which is why it makes even more sense that the show is set in California. 

To be clear, this is a California of the near future, when Covid-19 has been overpowered and the people of Los Angeles walk around without masks. Neil Bremer (Danson) is a wealthy businessman who decided to run for office and won. As mayor of Los Angeles he is overseeing a wave of progressive legislation including the opening of new marijuana shops and bans on plastic straws. In his office a team of quirky go-getters try to shape policy and deal with Bremer’s public slips. Chief of staff Mikaela (Vella Lovell) is proud to be a woman of color without a PHD ascending to her position, Tommy (Mike Cabellon) and Jayden (Bobby Moynihan) are aides who are total contrasts. Tommy is the icy, focused wing man while Jayden is a klutz who mistakes Bremer’s teen daughter, Orly (Kyla Kenedy), for his wife. There’s also Arpi (Holly Hunter), an activist who has been around City Hall for a while and begins advising Bremer on more progressive agendas. 

In the era of “Veep” and “The Politician,” this latest sitcom, which runs at barely 20 minutes an episode, feels like an easy consumption distraction. It’s surprisingly the latest offering from “30 Rock” creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. What their goal here is remains murky. “Mr. Mayor” is timid and never wants to punch hard. Ted Danson has great comedic timing, as we would expect, but the material never lets him or the cast soar. His Bremer is like a watered down take on current Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, who has the same clean cut look and soft tone of voice. You sense him trying to be your well-mannered buddy while pleading for L.A. to follow lockdown protocols as the pandemic continues to spread. Maybe it’s not the time yet to poke fun at the beleaguered city chief. In fact, production on “Mr. Mayor” was temporarily halted at the beginning of the Covid crisis last year. So what Fey and Carlock offer are many jokes that fall flat, even when Bremer inaugurates a weed shop and encourages citizens to do drugs. Orly complains that marijuana legalization hurts minority communities that depend on the illegal drug trade. That could have been a better joke, but it’s written without real bite. 

Perhaps Fey and Carlock are not chasing after political satire, just light laughs and grins. “Mr. Mayor” is funnier when it has individual moments that are just about the characters. Jayden is a likeable oaf who walks around in that West L.A. combo of slacks and flip-flops while Holly Hunter’s cliché but eccentric Arpi fights to restructure air traffic so it won’t disrupt life in low-income neighborhoods (there are some funny jabs here at ritzy Santa Monica’s locally famous anti-airport movement). Kyla Kenedy threatens to be a scene stealer, even from Insta-obsessed Mikaela. Her Orly is running for student body president and can’t stand the fact that her father might steal some of her ideas for his own use, like the straw ban. And, of course, Ted Danson is generally a hilariously warm presence. The “Cheers” star makes Bremer the kind of politician who does mean well, but keeps fibbing speeches and can’t help himself but try some pot gummy bears. 

There are endless opportunities to truly lampoon the California political class. But Fey and Carlock are after easy giggles. They make no effort to truly compete with the headlines or make fun of them. Smoking weed is not exactly the edgiest material nowadays and nothing Bremer does compares to Governor Gavin Newsom’s now infamous, maskless dinner at an opulent restaurant amid a raging pandemic. Now that’s a truly tragic-comic slip. What “Mr. Mayor” does have plenty of are great actors who bring charm to watered-down material. Even if they lack real bite, they have a welcoming presence. “Mr. Mayor” is briefly entertaining but if it doesn’t sharpen the wit, it could end up being as forgettable as your average campaign stump speech.

Mr. Mayor” season one premieres Jan. 7 and airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.