Imagine someone with no political experience running for office mainly for the publicity.
Really. I know it is hard. But try to imagine.
That’s what’s going on in ABC’s The Mayor, one of the most promising new network shows of the fall season and one that manages to simultaneously serve as a commentary on Donald Trump and, at least in its pilot, which airs Tuesday night, not engage with actual current events at all.
Courtney Rose, the struggling hip-hop artist who runs for and unexpectedly gets elected mayor of Fort Grey, California, is played by Brandon Micheal Hall, who turns out to be The Mayor’s chief asset. Prior to this half-hour comedy, Hall was perhaps best known for playing a dyslexic delivery guy on Broad City, and Julian, the former boyfriend of Alia Shawkat’s Dory, on Search Party. But from the first seconds of The Mayor, in which a shot of Courtney rapping the lyrics, “Come and see me where I live, man” dominates the frame, it’s apparent that Hall is a star fully equipped to capture Courtney’s casual charisma. There are people out there who are able to charm their way into jobs they have no business getting — like mayor, for example — and Hall’s performance immediately makes you buy that Courtney is one of those dudes.
Courtney is also one of those dudes who is willing to use a local election to inflate for his music career, mainly because he doesn’t think he has a chance in hell of getting elected. Neither does the front-runner, Ed Gunt (David Spade), who’s dismissive of Courtney during a debate, nor does Gunt’s campaign manager Valentina Barella (Lea Michele), a former high-school classmate who is not shy about calling out Courtney as a joke.
“Courtney Rose is a know-nothing egomaniac whose entire campaign is a stunt,” she tells a TV reporter. “Voters won’t fall for that. Not in America.”
Yes, there is intended irony in that joke. And yes, a couple of scenes later, Courtney realizes he’s now in charge of his hometown. After suggesting that Russia must have tampered with the voting machines, he reacts more or less the same way Robert Redford famously did at the end of the 1972 film The Candidate: with a “What do we do now?”
The Mayor contains faint echoes of various political stories, both real and fictional. But given the comedy’s focus on community engagement and the fact that a key element of the plot involves cleaning up a local park, the most obvious corollary is Parks and Recreation. Courtney is basically a combination of Leslie Knope and Tom Haverford: He’s an optimist with a genuine can-do spirit who doesn’t really know what he’s doing and, in addition, likes to treat himself. Like Parks and Rec, The Mayor also has a generous heart beating beneath the cynical jokes about how the system works, or doesn’t, for the people it’s supposed to serve.
“You critique the status quo,” Courtney’s mother Dina, played by Yvette Nicole Brown tells her son, referring to his rap lyrics. “Maybe now you can actually change it.” What could sound corny on another show or in another cultural climate feels necessary to hear right now, even if it is being said on a prime-time sitcom meant to serve as 30 minutes worth of escapism.
There is just enough realness in The Mayor to make it believable, and surely that’s due, in part, to its creator and showrunner, Jeremy Bronson, a former writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and The Mindy Project who began his career as a producer for Chris Matthews. That resume mix enables Bronson to walk just the right line between credible and comedic in the first episode, something that will hopefully continue as the season progresses.
Hall is also backed by a talented ensemble comprised of TV veterans like Brown, who plays Dina with both warmth and a sharply calibrated BS detector, and Michele, who’s doing a non-singing (so far) version of her know-it-all Rachel Berry from Glee, as well as funny newcomers Bernard David Jones and Marcel Spears as Courtney’s longtime friends and equally unsavvy staffers. Daveed Diggs, an executive producer of the series, also makes a brief but welcome appearance in Tuesday’s episode.
As I noted earlier, save for sly, wink-wink references and the occasional mention of Kellyanne Conway and Russia, The Mayor is not meant to join Will & Grace or American Horror Story: Cult in their recent efforts to call out the Cheeto-in-Chief. The Mayor is certainly showing us what it looks like when a person seeks office for selfish reasons and then has to figure out how to lead without experience, or a plan, or even a clue. But it’s also showing us what it looks like when that person happens to be a black man who knows what it means to be an average person with real struggles.
In other words, The Mayor doesn’t deliver some alternate universe, nonstop satirical take on Trump. It introduces us to a flawed but magnetic political newbie who is everything Donald Trump is not.