It’s been a rough fall for new network series. Unlike the 2016 season, this particular iteration of the annual ritual has seen more than its fair share of duds without a screw-the-critics megahit like This Is Us to show for it. (Unless you count Young Sheldon, but prequels to screw-the-critics megahits ought to be excluded.) CBS floated a reprehensible ode to the virtues of the tech-savvy, profit-driven private sector; ABC’s third attempt at a Marvel series got slammed as, among other things, “jaw-droppingly awful television.” And on Fox, Seth MacFarlane’s oddly earnest Star Trek homage The Orville was the kind of unnecessary venture only Family Guy could buy.
The flip side of this discouraging slate is that it’s easy to recommend the new series worth adding to your DVR queue. Really, there are two freshmen that qualify as the kind of joyful, compact comedy that broadcast continues to specialize in these days, but the appeal of Fox’s Ghosted—an X-Files–esque workplace comedy starring Craig Robinson and Adam Scott—is neatly summarized by “X-Files–esque workplace comedy starring Craig Robinson and Adam Scott.” The other, ABC’s The Mayor, is worth a more extended look, both as an effort with less-established sitcom stars and an intriguing expansion of its network’s comedy brand.
The Mayor premieres Tuesday night, though the network made its pilot available for free online for several weeks prior. (This is an increasingly common practice for new shows that distributors want to build word of mouth for. HBO’s The Deuce, a different series in almost every possible respect, adopted the same strategy prior to its on-air premiere.) It follows The Middle, Fresh Off the Boat, and Black-ish, three prime examples of the kind of sitcom ABC has expertly made its own over the past four years: single-camera, family-centric, and with a specific twist on an otherwise universal template. The Middle is about struggling to get by in the heartland; Fresh Off the Boat is an immigrant story with a heavy dose of ’90s nostalgia; Black-ish litigates Big Issues through the lens of one upwardly mobile black family in Los Angeles.
And that’s just Tuesday: On other nights, Speechless takes on disability, The Goldbergs Judaism and the ’80s, and American Housewife being plus size in Greenwich, Connecticut. ABC’s drama brand might be another story now that it’s down a Shonda Rhimes, but the broadcaster has gradually cultivated a comedy reputation for concepts that are timeless yet contemporary. Modern Family, the nine-season behemoth that presides over them all, has a title that handily doubles as a mission statement.
On its face, The Mayor doesn’t immediately fit into this well-defined subgenre. Its protagonist, an aspiring rapper named Courtney Rose (Brandon Micheal Hall), may live with his mother (Yvette Nicole Brown), a postal worker who occasionally abuses her power by nosing through other people’s mail. But as the name indicates, The Mayor isn’t centrally about their relationship; it’s about a run for mayor Courtney Rose initially launches as a promotional stunt that turns all too real when he wipes the floor with his debate competition (a consistently punchable David Spade). A rousing speech calling out municipal neglect wins him the race in a landslide. With the help of Lea Michele, essentially playing a grown-up version of Rachel Berry as Courtney Rose’s new chief of staff, Valentina, he sets about trying to improve the fictional Northern California town of Fort Grey.
In 2017 “joke candidacy turned shocking upset” sounds more like a premise for a season of American Horror Story than a lighthearted half-hour, and the pilot does have its share of winking one-liners that nod at current events. But in the hands of creator Jeremy Bronson—formerly of Speechless, The Mindy Project, and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—lighthearted and optimistic are precisely what The Mayor is. There’s also an earnestness that underlies the froth, meaning The Mayor works as a hopeful alternative to the prevailing mood of political cynicism as well as a reliable source of laughs. Bronson injects Parks and Recreation–style civic idealism to ABC’s already well-established ability to handle tricky subjects with heart. By premiere’s end, Courtney Rose has chosen to fully commit himself to his elected office, and a potentially condescending gag has recalibrated into a surprisingly sweet exploration of community leadership.
Some old-school tropes abound; Courtney Rose’s outsider and Valentina’s seasoned pro have a sparring, yet mutually impressed dynamic that screams will-they-won’t-they-you-already-know-they-will. Yet The Mayor adds some genuinely novel overtones to its tried-and-true framework. Race isn’t openly discussed much in the pilot, something I hope will change in the coming weeks, but a white establishment politician’s blatant ignorance of a public park’s state of disarray speaks to how divorced most of Fort Grey’s supposed civil servants are from the lived realities of their constituents, many of whom are people of color. Courtney Rose wins over the city not just because he’s charismatic and funny—which, thanks to Hall’s performance, he is—but also because he promises to be aware of and responsive to the community’s needs where other leaders have simply offered platitudes.
The Mayor’s respect for Fort Grey and its citizens, an intriguing contrast with even Parks and Rec’s cast of grouchy, irrational townspeople, shows up in surprising ways: The pilot, directed by sitcom veteran James Griffiths, is handsomely photographed in a way that feels more premium cable than candy-colored soundstage. (Tina Mabry, of Insecure, Queen Sugar, and Dear White People, helmed a future episode.) Taken together, The Mayor’s style, themes, and characters suggest a well-suited vehicle for barbed political commentary and goofy fish-out-of-water humor alike. Pilots are all about potential, and The Mayor has enough that I’ll be watching it carefully.