The new ABC comedy about a rapper turned mayor flips the mirror back on coastal America in the Trump era.
Two years ago, a TV show about a rapper becoming mayor of a mid-sized Northern California city would have been salacious stuff. But today, when it happens on ABC’s new sitcom “The Mayor,” we see a squeaky clean, idealistic counterpoint to the daily circus of national politics.
The show, which premiered Tuesday, is in fact a surprisingly complex response to the Trump era. The protagonist, Courtney Rose (Brandon Michael Hall), mounts his campaign for mayor of the fictional Fort Grey, California, as a thinly veiled publicity stunt for his stagnating rap career. But during the mayoral debate, interspersed between jokes, he makes some resonant statements about the shoddy state of the roads and a trash-filled park.
His opponent, Ed Gunt (David Spade), is a Jeb Bush-style city bureaucrat, who patiently explains, “I hate to interrupt the dog-and-pony show but urban development, it takes time. You wouldn’t know that.” Lo and behold, Courtney wins the election.
Here we have a politician in the vein of Donald Trump or Rob Ford, completely unqualified, with no strategy but to speak “truth” to power—but this is one we can’t help but love. The ever-charming Courtney emerges as a cross between a boy scout and a puppy, always trying to do the right thing for his community, while occasionally making silly, self-interested decisions to advance his rap career.
It’s hard to know where “The Mayor” will go following the pilot—the main arc of the first episode involves a semi-successful park cleanup—but even the show’s premise is a thought-provoking mirror. It seems to take as a given Americans’ proclivities for funny, televisual politicians who can speak to their frustrations, and tries to give it a positive spin. It’s a chance to fantasize about a totally inexperienced person opportunistically running for office, who turns out to be really humble, well-meaning, and great at learning on the job.
It’s a fun fantasy to entertain right now, and city government is a great arena for it. Cities are increasingly seen as a bulwark against the gross displays of partisanship and gridlock that characterize state and federal government. Indeed, if the show were more realistic and harder edged, the mayoral debate would have included some fiery anti-Trump rants, which are common among local leaders in blue states like California. For what it’s worth, “The Mayor” hints at its political leanings through an unusual advertorial website that promotes the show as well as organizations that help political candidates from under-represented communities, and progressive causes like “expanding voting rights for all.”
These offscreen alliances, some of which might be difficult for a network audience to swallow, make sense given the show’s setting. Fort Grey is a lower-middle class, extremely diverse city that feels like it should be somewhere between Oakland and Vallejo, in the cradle of the #Resist movement. It seems significant that even here, residents are susceptible to simple-minded populism. Luckily for the people of Fort Grey, it seems like everything is headed in the right direction.