Roush Review: Calling on Familiar Faces (Ted Danson as ‘Mr. Mayor’) for Midseason Laughs

Ted Danson Mr Mayor Neil Bremer
Colleen Hayes/NBC

Haven’t we seen them somewhere before? That’s the point.

Displaying a collective amnesia so common to broadcast networks, a new wave of wobbly comedic star vehicles once again proves a painful point: that sitcoms are often better at creating new stars than at repackaging familiar faces.

The exception to this rule, as it has been for decades, is Ted Danson. Fresh from his inspired and touching work as the most human of demons on The Good Place, he glides effortlessly into the more earthbound role of NBC’s cluelessly benign Mr. Mayor, from those 30 Rock masterminds Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. (The series premieres Thursday with back-to-back episodes before settling into its 8/7c time period next week.)

A kinder variant of Veep, and toothless as political satire, Mayor excels at zany offhand absurdities: a communications aide (former Saturday Night Live clown Bobby Moynihan, a daffy delight) who wears flip flops to work because of “podiatric claustrophobia,” or a throwaway reference to a Mayor’s Commission on Gender Equity and Brunch. Danson fits right into this wacky world as Neil Bremer, a retired businessman who enters politics as a lark to appease his disgruntled daughter (Shameless scene-stealer Kyla Kenedy in a thankless role), and is as surprised as anyone that he actually wins.

Even his snarky chief of staff (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s terrific Vella Lovell) is appalled: “I made that old white man seem cogent and cool!” Cool? Well, it’s Ted Danson, so we get it. But cogent? Not so much, and it’s a testament to Danson’s charm that he can even sell a tired storyline like getting high during a day of public appearances. It’s more fun watching him indulge the uptight ultraprogressive nuisance Arpi Meskimen (a tart Holly Hunter) whom he brings into his inner circle, even after she pledges, “Like underwear bought in a drugstore, you’re not going to last two months.”

I give Mr. Mayor a much longer lease on life.

Wish I were as confident about Fox’s Call Me Kat, a bubbly but forced showcase for The Big Bang Theory‘s Mayim Bialik as a chipper single woman pushing 40 and more OK about it than her nagging mom (a strident Swoosie Kurtz). Inspired by the more distinctive British sitcom Miranda, Bialik overplays the self-conscious asides to the camera (reminiscent of the superior Fleabag) as Kat, who operates a cat café in Louisville and insists she’s destined to be a rad, not sad, cat lady.

The recent return of a lifelong crush (Cheyenne Jackson), who bartends in the piano bar across the street from her café, drives what plot there is, as Kat frantically fumbles to figure out where their relationship stands. Even with seasoned sitcom sidekicks like Leslie Jordan (Will & Grace) and Kyla Pratt (One on One) cheering her on at the workplace, there’s no compelling reason to drop on by.

Call Me Kat‘s Mayim Bialik (Lisa Rose/FOX)

While Bialik is endearingly self-deprecating, even when her slapstick klutziness pushes for laughs, the show’s breaking-the-fourth-wall gimmicks — including everyone dropping out of character to wave and take bows at the end — just reinforce the stale artifice of it all. 

Even so, Kat is better company than Jean, the overbearing meddler at the core of ABC’s Call Your Mother, which reduces The Closer‘s formidable Kyra Sedgwick to a clingy and neurotic noodge who heads halfway across the country to ambush her colorless grown kids with her neediness: “If I’m not mothering, am I still a mother?” she laments to a friend (Sherri Shepherd). “Do we even exist?” The jury’s out.

Call Your Mother‘s Kyra Sedgwick (ABC/Brian Bowen Smith)

Sedgwick proved she had comic chops during a recurring role on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and I’m encouraged by the fact that Mother‘s creator, Kari Lizer, once upon a pre-Veep time fashioned a great role for Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the underrated The New Adventures of Old Christine, but the pilot episode is beyond grating as it drives home the point that “You don’t get to pick your family.” You do get to pick what sitcoms you watch, however, and it’s hard to imagine Call Your Mother making the cut.

It’s still early days, of course, but while Mother and Kat desperately call for a do-over, only Mayor feels like it deserves a callback.

Mr. Mayor, Series Premiere, Thursday, January 7, 8/7c, NBC

Call Me Kat, Time Period Premiere, Thursday, January 7, 9/8c, Fox

Call Your Mother, Series Premiere, Wednesday, January 13, 9:30/8:30c, ABC