The brilliance of 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s critically adored if criminally under-watched workplace sitcom, was not just in its breathlessly fast procession of inventive one-liners but in its overall composition, a network comedy that moved like no other. It was that rarest of things – a true original – Fey thrillingly rewriting the rules of what we’d grown to expect from the genre and providing a new template for how jokes should be structured and performed, giving herself and her many talented co-writers an entirely separate space carved out far from her more conventionally minded peers.
When it ended, this template was soon resurrected for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, created by Fey and her 30 Rock writer-producer Robert Carlock, and then again for Great News, from another 30 Rock alum, Tracey Wigfield. Both had their moments but the fizz of the show that birthed them was becoming flat, accompanied by a creeping realisation that perhaps this brave new format wasn’t destined for versatility. It’s a fear that’s now fully proved by Mr Mayor, Fey and Carlock’s latest and flashiest attempt to conjure up the same old magic, a far from disastrous yet far from essential new comedy kicking off what’s set to be an unusual, and perhaps underwhelming, year of television.
Its journey to the small screen has been difficult not just because of the obvious (like many new shows, it’s suffered a stop-start production process as a result of the pandemic) but because of its shift from being a New York-based 30 Rock spin-off starring Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy to being an LA-based nothing-to-do-with-3o-Rock series starring Ted Danson. The Frankensitcom that’s emerged, which also tries to be the first official piece of fiction set after the coronavirus, is predictably a bit of a mess, at least as evidenced by the first two episodes made available to critics – but not one without the odd glimmer of something, whatever that might end up being. The story sees Danson, graduating from recently departed The Good Place, play Neil Bremer, a wealthy businessman who’s stumbled into the role of mayor of Los Angeles. Obvious comparisons to the soon-to-be-dethroned US president end there, as Bremer is more clueless than conniving. It’s therefore up to those around him to shape what kind of politician he is, including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell as a skeptical Insta-obsessed adviser, the hitherto underused ex-SNL-er Bobby Moynihan as an oafish aide and, most excitingly, Holly Hunter as an activist who becomes Bremer’s deputy.
One of my growing issues with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a show I found mostly very funny, was the shortsightedness of its cartoonish silliness. While its array of outsized characters and outlandish situations were amusing for a while (and smartly wrapped up with a suitably goofy interactive special), by the third and fourth seasons, it was becoming impossible to muster up even the smallest shred of investment; it was a collage of zany moments rather than a cohesive series. In 30 Rock, even though the humour was often as surreal, Liz Lemon was someone we rooted for, romantically and professionally, a fully formed protagonist presented with all of her many flaws, and it’s one of the key explanations for its seven-season run. With the first two episodes of Mr Mayor, Fey and Carlock have gone for Kimmy-ish excess but in such a scattered way that it’s hard to even take it as throwaway fun, the show’s focus shifting every few minutes, creating a feeling of whiplash for even the most devoted 30 Rock fans.
The supporting characters, of vital importance to a show such as this, aren’t quite magnetic enough to make us crave more than what we’ve seen, with no Tracy or Jenna or even a Titus or a Lillian standing out just yet. That’s a problem given that the show’s NBC home will make it heavily reliant on ratings (a streaming binge would have allowed for a more forgiving audience). There’s little here we haven’t seen Danson do before and there’s more fun to be had from watching an unusually playful Hunter, a perfect match for the Fey/Carlock style of joke delivery, and Moynihan, who lands some of the biggest laughs. But the biggest laughs aren’t quite big enough, and while the watered-down 30 Rock formula might be preferable to some of the other heinously unfunny network sitcoms out there, it mostly serves as a depressing reminder of what came before.
While its final sans-Baldwin iteration was announced in 2019, Mr Mayor was shot, and promptly rewritten, during the pandemic, with the action set in a time post-Covid. It’s an interesting decision, but much like the show’s many attempts to skewer “woke” culture (which are too confused to make any real impact, good or bad, although most do lean toward the latter), it’s ultimately just a way of trying to dust off what’s essentially a rather generic sitcom from a team who should know, and can do, better. New dog, old tricks.