Late last year, a potential heir to “30 Rock” debuted on a largely unheralded streaming service. “Saved by the Bell,” Peacock’s reboot of the 1989-93 teen staple, traded its forerunner’s clunkiness for a fleet and jazzy willingness to push past absurdity. From its breezy relationship with reality to its rich and deep bench of characters, it was no surprise that this series came from the mind of a key force behind “30 Rock” — Tracey Wigfield, who shared an Emmy win with Tina Fey for writing that series’s finale. Wigfield’s impish, hyperverbal humor both recalled her past creative home at its best and suggested that it might have a future.
The resounding creative success of “Bell” has one downside: It serves to emphasize that which does not work about “Mr. Mayor,” NBC’s new sitcom co-created by Fey and Robert Carlock. The two driving forces behind “30 Rock” have taken a potentially intriguing premise and a setting rich with possibility and made a dour, halfhearted wince of a sitcom, a show that at a network-ready 22 minutes still seems to drag itself over the finish line. “Mr. Mayor” is disappointing — but disappointments happen. The great surprise of the show, given the talent involved, is the degree to which it’s an unpleasant hang.
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The show centers around the conflict between Neil Bremer (Ted Danson), the newly installed mayor of Los Angeles, and Arpi Meskimen (Holly Hunter), a rival whom he appoints as his deputy. Neil, a vain captain of industry who entered politics on a lark, could be said to represent chaos; Arpi, a striver with big ideas and limited interpersonal charms, imposes order. So far, so promising: The trouble, though, is that the show holds both in varying degrees of contempt, Neil for his dilletantishness and Arpi for her caricatured lefty ways. We meet both characters at press conferences, and both are in over their heads: Neil seems generally lost in his job, while Arpi is declaring full-throated opposition to a plastic-straw ban on behalf of people with disabilities. She’s revealed, in short order, to have no idea what she’s talking about and to have used nicknames for people with quadriplegia that they themselves would never use.
And so it is that, in its early going, a show about city government becomes a show about how only silly or vain people try to change the world. Neil’s aides — played by Vella Lovell and Mike Cabellon, with Bobby Moynihan as the office oddball — are alternately incompetent or neurotically obsessed with how they’re perceived. Lovell’s character, the mayor’s chief of staff, expresses concern for how her work will read on “biracial Twitter.” Neil is, at least, guided by a mission, to prove himself to his daughter (Kyla Kenedy). All of these characters tend to explain their or one another’s motivations in flat expositional dialogue, as in Neil’s opening presser at which he describes the show’s premise. Or, take this line given to Arpi in which she flatly tells Neil the show’s main idea: “Boy, you really don’t know what you’re doing — not just at work but at home.”
Little wonder, tasked with ceaseless narration of a fairly basic concept, both Hunter and Danson give genially tuned-out performances, coasting on charm to grease the skids of a show whose tone might otherwise lean hard into annoyance. (Danson in particular seems lost; it’s a relief that he doesn’t play up his character’s Trumpish aspects, but the mischief and waggishness so familiar to TV fans is gone, too.) There’s room to tell good jokes both about wealthy people using the political arena as their playground and about the pretensions American liberals. “30 Rock” did this all the time! And when Fey and Carlock’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” shifted into increasingly sharp attacks on the sensitivities of contemporary culture — well, it happened on a series with so much going on that, like it or not, the show’s antic imbalance was the point. “Mr. Mayor” is really just about an inept politician and his self-styled conscience, someone whose buffoonish streak shows in that she believes government can help people.
That’s one area in which this show suffers especially by comparison to its forbear: Set amidst the world of television, “30 Rock” evinced a deep love for its subject, the sort of love that allows one to tweak vanities with deep familiarity and warm wit. “Mr. Mayor” looks at politics with the sort of aggrieved skepticism that makes a viewer wonder why its creators bothered making it a show at all.
“Mr. Mayor” premieres Jan 7 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.
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