Incompetent Men Aren’t Funny Anymore
NBC’s latest workplace comedy was supposed to be a spinoff of “30 Rock.” And it shows. But not in a good way.
The reviews are in for “Mr. Mayor,” NBC’s latest workplace comedy starring Ted Danson, and they aren’t good. Rotten Tomatoes gives the show an overall “rotten” rating, with critics calling it “bland,” “predictable,” and “toothless.” Rick Bentley of KGET.com goes even further by saying “Mr. Mayor” is just the latest NBC show to “waste their very talented stars” by putting them in boring projects.
“Mr. Mayor” is especially disappointing given that its producers, Robert Carlock and Tina Fey, are the same duo that brought “30 Rock” into our living rooms in the mid-2000s. And given that “Mr. Mayor” shares a similar workplace dynamic as other NBC hits like “The Office” and “30 Rock” — a chaotic, chronically obnoxious male boss surrounded by women who keep him and the rest of the workplace grounded — the show shouldn’t have a hard time being funny. Or at least likable.
But unlike those other shows, “Mr. Mayor” feels too connected to the present, as most of the humor in the first few episodes involves the writers taking shots at cancel culture and left-wing identity politics (in the pilot episode, the mayor asks an aide if he’s allowed to use the word “crucified” to express how he felt following a run-in with angry constituents).
And yet, the show seems painfully unaware of itself as it makes its debut at the tail end of the Trump presidency, an era fueled by white male grievance toward the same left-wingers “Mr. Mayor” makes the target of ridicule. That the show was originally conceived as a spin-off of “30 Rock,” where Alec Baldwin would reprise his role as businessman Jack Donaghy to run for office in New York, might explain why it feels oblivious to the past four years with Trump. Ultimately “Mr. Mayor” is bad because the timing is bad. Americans have had their full of incompetent men — off and on the screen.
“Mr. Mayor” is caught between a rock and a hard place. The show wants viewers to remember what made them love the leading men of “The Office” and “30 Rock” in spite of their obnoxiousness — and to give L.A. Mayor Neil Bremer (Ted Danson) the same benefit of the doubt. But unlike Michael Scott or Jack Donaghy, Bremer exists in a world unencumbered by the assumption that a man as powerful as him could never act this way in real life and still keep his job and the respect of his employees.
As charming as the slate of characters are that Ted Danson has played throughout his career, it’s hard not to think that Bremer’s antics are directly inspired by something the former president did. In the opening scene of the pilot, Bremer’s chief of staff Mikaela (Vella Lovell) warns him against speaking Spanish at an upcoming event, suggesting he makes a fool of himself whenever he tries. As I watched the scene a second time, I recalled Trump’s infamous taco bowl tweet — just as Bremer’s belly-laugh in the face of a disabled construction worker a few episodes later took me back to the time Trump mocked a disabled reporter during a campaign rally.
Granted, Trump or no Trump, one could argue these moments from “Mr. Mayor” are genuinely unfunny. “The Office” could find humor in crossing the line racially, sexually, or otherwise because ultimately viewers understood the characters were unconnected to actual levers of power in the American political system. In other words, Michael Scott’s saving grace is that he’s not that powerful in the big picture. Mayor Bremer, on the other hand, runs the second largest city in the country. Cameo appearances from David Spade and Chrissy Teigen serve as reminders of just how meaningful his job is beyond the physical workplace. In reality, Bremer’s behavior could bring harm to people if it went unchecked. A month after Donald Trump was impeached for inciting a riot to attack the U.S. Capitol, he was acquitted in a Senate trial after only seven Republicans voted with Democrats to convict him. The last thing TV viewers want now is to be reminded of what powerful white men can get away with.
As a workplace comedy taking place at the center of local government, the women of “Mr. Mayor” end up doing a lot more than office work. They are much more knowledgeable of Bremer’s job than he is, but their competence is treated more as a pall on their womanhood than as an indictment of society’s double standards. Arpi (Holly Hunter), Bremer’s deputy mayor, is shown to be dedicated to L.A. to a detriment. She has a deep understanding of the city and its problems but lacks the people skills to be mayor herself. Unlike 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, who knew how to be just one of the guys in a male-dominated writer’s room, Arpi doesn’t find value in being liked — only in being right. In many ways Arpi’s bottomless knowledge of L.A. is the missing piece in the new Bremer administration, but Bremer doesn’t make her deputy mayor for her expertise. Instead Bremer, knowing that she is gunning for his job, gives Arpi a job that will allow him to keep an eye on her.
The writers aren’t much kinder to Mikaela, Bremer’s chief of staff, whose juvenile obsession with social media distracts viewers from how resourceful she is. In the pilot for instance, she worries that “Biracial Twitter” will turn on her for working for a bungling white man, and a few episodes later she is elated when Bremer’s teenaged daughter follows her on Instagram. In the seventh episode, Mikaela is plagued by insomnia that Arpi helps her realize stems from insecurities she feels about her authority as chief of staff. But the episode bookends several episodes in which Mikaela is revealed to be a lot like Bremer — far more animated by the optics of political power than by the day-to-day responsibilities it entails. But she is the only one who shows any qualms about her ability to do her job effectively. She, in essence, does the emotional work that Bremer is neither inclined nor expected to do no matter how bad he is at his job.
After four years of Trump, incompetent men in power do not make for good network TV. But did they ever? Perhaps Trump’s disastrous time in office is proof that Americans never should have been laughing. More often than not, the networks that gave Trump unlimited airtime in 2016 are the same networks greenlighting workplace comedies that feature only slightly lighter versions of him.