In the grand sweep of TV history, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation are far more similar than different. Two single-camera sitcoms with female leads that aired on NBC from the late aughts to the mid-2010s, both contributed to a Thursday night lineup that may not have matched Must-See TV in reach, but rivals it in cultural impact. Not only were stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler SNL alumnae entering middle age—they were also friends and frequent collaborators. And years later, both enjoy a second life on streaming services.
Yet precisely because they’re so similar, the series are also perfect foils. 30 Rock’s title workplace was a TV network staffed by cynics, narcissists, and greedy executives; Parks and Rec’s was a city government run by public servants. A simple pessimist-optimist divide flows from these settings, but also the respective sensibilities of creators Fey and Michael Schur. (Emphasis on “simple”: 30 Rock has its moments of tender emotion, Parks and Rec biting satire.) Fey tends to be jaded, almost misanthropic in her humor: see the view of the male gender espoused in “Meet Your Second Wife,” or less successfully, her unforgiving spoof of Marcia Clark on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Schur, by contrast, has built a career out of arguing “nice” and “funny” don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can, and probably do, like both shows. But you also probably prefer one over the other, and that preference says something about your worldview.
Which makes Mr. Mayor a curious case, because it’s essentially the 30 Rock creative team interpolating the premise of Parks and Rec. Premiering Thursday night on NBC, the new sitcom stars Ted Danson fresh from The Good Place as Neil Bremer, a Los Angeles billboard tycoon who runs a successful campaign to take over City Hall. Mr. Mayor arrives at a time when L.A. local politics are in an unusually bright national spotlight: A local city council race attracted endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, while the county’s new district attorney is considered a leading advocate for criminal-justice reform. On a less positive note, the city is also in the grip of a coronavirus outbreak that’s among the nation’s worst. None of this is addressed in detail by Mr. Mayor, which positions the pandemic as a thing of the past. (“I was quarantining before it was cool!” jokes Neil of his early retirement, a line that lands awkwardly in light of the show’s own on-set outbreak. Production is currently on extended hiatus as a result.) But it does position Mr. Mayor slightly closer to the zeitgeist than a mere Jack Donaghy spinoff, which is how the project began before its cross-country move.
Cocreated by Fey and longtime partner Robert Carlock, Mr. Mayor takes after both official Fey productions like the late Great News and unofficial affiliates like the Saved by the Bell reboot on Peacock. The list of executive producers includes familiar names like Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond, whose compositions give Fey’s shows a signature sound as well as a style, and writer Sam Means, who worked on both 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. SNL alum Bobby Moynihan costars as Jayden, a communications aide, providing a direct line back to the comic mothership. On paper, the show is more of a class reunion than a passing of the torch.
But there are also some welcome new faces. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell plays Mikaela, Bremer’s chief of staff whose social media savvy propelled his outsider campaign to victory. The “first woman of color without a master’s degree” to hold the job, her character delivers some surprisingly savvy social media jokes for a creative team that doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to the identitarian internet. Holly Hunter deigns to do her first TV sitcom—unless you count Succession—as Arpi Meskimen, a far-left city councilwoman who becomes Bremer’s deputy mayor. Mr. Mayor is Hunter’s first onscreen collaboration with Danson, who’s such a center of gravity in TV he qualifies as a creative force in his own right. Those broad limbs and breathy voice are so iconic they can’t help but set the tone.
Like its contributors, Mr. Mayor itself turns out to be an intriguing mix of old and new. For one thing, California is a novel frontier for a consummate New Yorker in both life and work. (30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt are both set in Manhattan, while Great News takes place relatively far afield in … suburban New Jersey.) To the pleasant surprise of Angelenos exhausted by years of condescension from our cross-country friends, Mr. Mayor may parody its city, but from a place of knowledge and affection. Mikaela complains Bremer “thinks Santa Monica is a part of Los Angeles,” a fairly niche gripe for anyone outside the TMZ. Arpi’s erstwhile council district—the 13th, once the domain of current mayor Eric Garcetti—includes “East Hollywood, Little Bangladesh, and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery,” a punch line that happens to be geographically accurate. Sharper jabs about Alf Junior High (“There’s so much history in this city!”) are more tolerable given their context.
A sitcom, much like the sourdough loaves we’ve all been tending to these past months, can take time to develop flavor and depth. Because Mr. Mayor provided only two episodes out of an eventual 13 to critics in advance, it feels early to render judgment on its success. Nor is every factor in its reception entirely within its control; after the events of the past few years, viewers may have little appetite for a show about an unqualified millionaire who buys his way into power. Bremer has a real-life local analog in Rick Caruso, the mall mogul with a bit part in the college admissions scandal who’s mulled a run for City Hall—but there’s a better-known inspiration who comes to mind, even if we’d rather he didn’t.
For now, though, we’re left with a show that combines Fey and Carlock’s silly-snark signature with a very different kind of workplace. Neil’s daughter Orly (Kyla Kenedy), named after the airport where she was conceived, still feels disconnected from the main action. But while Mr. Mayor weaves its disparate threads together, it buys time with Fey-Carlock touchstones like lunch gags and accidental puns. (Jayden demands tacos even though they don’t travel well; Arpi’s signature policy initiative abbreviates to P.P.P.O.R.N.)
Of all Mr. Mayor’s lingering unknowns, the biggest is where it wants to land on the sincerity spectrum. Neil is a buffoon, but Danson is compulsively likable, even when he’s playing a demon whose purpose in life is to torture mankind. Arpi is a self-righteous liberal opposed to misgendering coyotes, but most of her policy goals are admirable ones. In other words, Mr. Mayor has both bite and some soft spots, critical of its characters but not scornful, either. It’s not quite Parks and Rec, but it’s closer to it than Fey has ever gone.