As 'Mr. Mayor,' Ted Danson Sustains His Stellar Sitcom Streak

Jan 5, 2021
Originally published on January 5, 2021 12:31 pm

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the creators of NBC's new sitcom Mr. Mayor, were deep into the run of their hit 30 Rock when they came up with a promising idea for a spinoff. How about taking Jack Donaghy, the corporate executive played by Alec Baldwin, and have him run for mayor — and win?

That didn't happen, and Baldwin ended up playing a much more powerful politician, repeatedly and hilariously, on Tina Fey's old stomping grounds, Saturday Night Live.

But that comic concept — of a celebrity mayor surrounded, and often defended by, an eager, yet weary, staff — was too good to let go. After all, it worked for years on ABC's Spin City, with Michael J. Fox playing the political assistant of a clueless mayor. And Mayor Jack Donaghy wouldn't have been clueless — just arrogant and very, very vocal.

But with Donaghy out, Fey and Carlock dumped the spinoff idea and reshaped it into Mr. Mayor. Where 30 Rock was set in and perfectly captured New York, the new sitcom is set in Los Angeles — and Neil Bremer, the newly elected mayor, isn't a corporate executive, or even a TV celebrity.

Instead, Bremer is a retired millionaire who made his fortune plastering billboards all along Southern California's streets and highways. He's not clueless or arrogant, but he does come to the job without credentials or experience. Ted Danson, the actor who plays Bremer, is the exact opposite – with so many credentials, and so much experience at starring in TV sitcoms, that it's almost ridiculous.

NBC's launch of Mr. Mayor extends Danson's astounding streak of starring in TV sitcoms to five consecutive decades. In the 1980s, he had an 11-year run starring as Sam Malone on NBC's Cheers. In the '90s, he was still starring in Cheers, then began a six-season run as the star of Becker on CBS. In the 2000s, he finished up Becker and started playing an exaggerated version of himself as a recurring character on Larry David's HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm. He's still doing that. And in the decade that just ended, Danson also starred for four years on another brilliant sitcom, NBC's The Good Place. And now, Mr. Mayor. I'm in awe of that run — not only for its quantity and longevity, but also for its quality.

In Mr. Mayor, Danson takes the spotlight and shines once again, playing a character who's clearly delighted by the job he ran for, and won, on a whim. Mayor Bremer's relationship with his 15-year-old daughter Orly, played by Kyla Kenedy, gives the show as much comic potential as the political workplace. Especially since Danson, as a father frustrated by his inability to connect with his teen daughter, takes the script and sticks every landing on every line — even the absurdly inappropriate toss-aways.

Mr. Mayor has other secret weapons, too, including Holly Hunter, who begins the series as the mayor's most vocal adversary. She's wonderful. So is former SNL player Bobby Moynihan as one of the mayor's political aides — and, basically, so is this entire show. NBC is premiering two episodes of Mr. Mayor on Thursday, the night once reserved for such great, must-see TV sitcoms as Cheers, which began its run there almost 40 years ago. To start 2021 on a very good note, NBC has done it again. And so has Ted Danson.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This Thursday, NBC premieres "Mr. Mayor," the latest sitcom from the creators of "30 Rock." It stars Ted Danson as the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, is impressed both by the series and by Ted Danson's ongoing comedy career. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The creators of NBC's "30 Rock," Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, were deep into the run of that clever sitcom when they came up with a promising idea for a spinoff. How about taking Jack Donaghy, the corporate executive played by Alec Baldwin, and have him run for mayor and win? That didn't happen. And Baldwin ended up playing a much more powerful politician, repeatedly and hilariously, on Tina Fey's old stomping grounds, "Saturday Night Live." But that comic concept of a celebrity mayor, surrounded and often defended by an eager yet weary staff, was too good to let go. After all, it worked for years on ABC's "Spin City," with Michael J. Fox playing the political assistant of a clueless mayor. And Mayor Jack Donaghy wouldn't have been clueless, just arrogant and very, very vocal.

But with Donaghy out, Fey and Carlock, the creators of "Mr. Mayor," dumped the spin off idea and reshaped it, where "30 Rock" was set in and perfectly captured New York, this new sitcom is set in Los Angeles. And the newly elected mayor isn't a corporate executive or even a TV celebrity. The character, Neil Bremer, is a retired millionaire who made his fortune plastering billboards all along Southern California's streets and highways. He's not clueless or arrogant, but he does come to the job without credentials or experience.

The actor playing him is the exact opposite, with so many credentials and so much experience at starring in TV sitcoms, it's almost ridiculous. Ted Danson is playing the title role in "Mr. Mayor," and with NBC launching this series in 2021, it extends Danson's astounding streak of starring in TV sitcoms to five consecutive decades. In the 1980s, he had an 11-year run starring as Sam Malone on NBC's "Cheers." In the '90s, he was still starring in Cheers, then began a six-season run as the star of "Becker" on CBS. In the 2000s, he finished up "Becker" and started playing an exaggerated version of himself as a recurring character on Larry David's HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm." He's still doing that. And in the decade just ended, he also starred for four years on another brilliant sitcom, NBC's "The Good Place." And now "Mr. Mayor."

I'm in awe of that run, not only for its quantity and longevity, but also for its quality. And in "Mr. Mayor," he takes the spotlight and shines once again, playing a character who's clearly delighted by the job he ran for and won on a whim. The last time I saw anyone having this much fun sparring with the media at an introductory press conference, it was when the Beatles had just landed in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. MAYOR")

TED DANSON: (As Neil Bremer) Hi - questions.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mr. Mayor, Mr. Mayor...

DANSON: (As Neil Bremer) Anyone - over here. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) When will you be making appointments? You haven't named a single deputy mayor.

DANSON: (As Neil Bremer) I don't want any. Like my daughter used to say about wiping her tushy - no, me do it. No deputy mayors. Look. I know that this city has big, big issues facing it. That's why today, I want to start with something small we can all agree on. I want to ban something that sucks. Guess what it is.

BIANCULLI: The target of his ban is the plastic drinking straw. And that happens to be a pet cause among many environmentalists, including his now-15-year-old daughter, Orly, played by Kyla Kenedy. Their relationship gives "Mr. Mayor" as much comic potential as the arena of the political workplace, especially since Danson, as a father frustrated by his inability to connect with his teen daughter, takes everything in the script written by Fey and Carlock and sticks every landing on every line, even the absurdly inappropriate toss-aways. Here are Kenedy and Danson having a typically uncomfortable father-daughter chat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. MAYOR")

KYLA KENEDY: (As Orly Bremer) Oh, my God, Daddy, how could you do this? The straw ban is my thing.

DANSON: (As Neil Bremer) Because - because I care about things that you care - remember, I cared about Pokemon when you loved Pokemon.

KENEDY: (As Orly Bremer) Dad, how could you do this to me? I mean, everyone thinks I copied your straw ban idea. You have to take yours back.

DANSON: (As Neil Bremer) I can't do that.

KENEDY: (As Orly Bremer) Do you know what Veda (ph) said?

DANSON: (As Neil Bremer) Who's Veda?

KENEDY: (As Orly Bremer) She said that the straw ban was exactly the kind of frivolous thing she would expect from a rich, white man's daughter. She called us rich.

DANSON: (As Neil Bremer) No, I'm rich. You're my plus-one. Look. You tell Veda that I was born in a walkup in Crown Heights. I slept in one bed with both my grandfathers. And one of them had something called erotic dementia.

KENEDY: (As Orly Bremer) I hate that story.

BIANCULLI: "Mr. Mayor" has other secret weapons, too, including Holly Hunter, who begins the series as the mayor's most vocal adversary. She's wonderful. So is former SNL player Bobby Moynihan as one of the mayor's political aides. And, basically, so is this entire show. NBC is premiering two episodes of "Mr. Mayor" on Thursday, the night once reserved for such great, must-see TV sitcoms as "Cheers," which began its run there almost 40 years ago. To start 2021 on a very good note, NBC has done it again. And so has Ted Danson.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV studies at Rowan University.

On tomorrow's show, we speak with Filipina journalist Maria Ressa. Her coverage of populist President Rodrigo Duterte has gotten her Internet trolls, death threats, criminal charges and Time magazine's 2018 Person of the Year award. She's the subject of a new documentary called "A Thousand Cuts." It airs Friday on the PBS series "Frontline." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Teresa Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelly and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.