Making a good first episode of a TV show is tough enough, but making a good first episode of a comedy is harder still. You can count the number of truly great comedy pilots on one hand — the No. 1 example is almost always Cheers — because comedies depend so much on a show’s cast and writers coming together to figure out everyone’s respective rhythms. Throw in the fact that comedies have less time to impart story because they’re also cracking jokes and it’s no wonder their premiere episodes often feel rushed and overstuffed. Usually they’re somewhat frantic to make viewers laugh, even though it’s unlikely that their shows have truly figured their sense of humor.
Two new comedies offer particularly good examples of how tricky comedy pilots can be, especially if a show’s concept is anything more ambitious than “friends hang out.” First, there’s Ghosted, Fox’s workplace comedy about a former professor and a detective (played by Adam Scott and Craig Robinson, respectively) who stumble upon a high-stakes investigation into alien activity being conducted by some shadowy government agency. And then there’s The Mayor, ABC’s sitcom about a rapper (Brandon Micheal Hall) who tries to drum up publicity for his album by running for mayor of his hometown — and then has to do the job once he accidentally wins.
Both of these comedies boast great casts and interesting concepts. But where one finds a way to establish a unique voice while speeding through story, the other trips over its own setup.
Here are some quick thoughts on what works and what doesn’t about each show, starting with the bad news.
Ghosted is a comedy about government conspiracies and aliens that somehow manages to boring
Ghosted struggled a bit while coming together, requiring reshoots and an eleventh-hour recasting that brought Amber Stevens West into the fold after The Carmichael Show was suddenly canceled in June. But even if I didn’t know that already, it would have been clear just from watching the pilot.
Written by Tom Gormican — whose only other major writing credit is the Zac Efron sex comedy That Awkward Moment — the pilot for Ghosted feels a little like the first half of a feature-length movie hastily crammed into one 20-minute block. It works so hard to make its concept work, sprinting through character introductions and introducing multiple vast conspiracies so quickly that nothing has any time to land. Every other line features a character explaining their role to another rather than just showing us who they are as they react to their surroundings or make decisions in heated moments. As a result, not a single character stands out as being anything other than a basic archetype: nerd, cool guy, twitchy assistant, bitchy boss, et cetera and so on.
This is a shame, because Ghosted’s cast works hard to sell every ounce of plodding exposition. There are few TV actors better at delivering wry nerd-speak than Scott, who plays a disgraced Stanford professor who believes in “the multiverse” and is certain that aliens abducted his wife. Robinson, playing the more extroverted half of the duo as a disgraced detective who’s hauling around a major chip on his shoulder, is an expert at selling exasperation as he lands jokes. But at least in Ghosted’s first episode, neither gets sharp enough material to show off what they’re capable of, which only makes the show feel more bizarrely off-kilter.
Again: Comedy pilots are hard to begin with, and Ghosted’s was always going to be a challenge due to the intricacy of the show’s premise. The question going forward will be whether the series can lean into its solid ensemble and hone a more specific sense of humor now that it’s checked off all the necessary “who, what, where, when, and why” boxes, or if it will just get lost in its own shuffle.
New episodes of Ghosted air Mondays at 8:30 pm Eastern on Fox. The first episode is currently available to stream on Hulu.
The Mayor crams an extraordinary amount of plot into 20 minutes but still establishes a sharp voice
Going into The Mayor, I had assumed the first episode would be about the show’s protagonist, Courtney Rose (Hall), deciding to boost his rap career by running for mayor. So it only took four minutes for the show to surprise me as it completely bypassed the process of Courtney figuring out how to run for office, instead dropping in toward the end of the character’s surprisingly successful campaign. By the end of the first commercial break, Courtney was the new mayor of Fort Grey, California, and in way over his head.
Largely ditching the campaign to focus on Courtney’s actual time in office is an ambitious move, but The Mayor’s pilot — written by Jeremy Bronson — aims for a balance of kicking off the story while letting the characters tell specific jokes that convey who they are, without having to spell everything out. And for the most part, it succeeds.
It helps that The Mayor nailed its casting. Yvette Nicole Brown is both warm and firm as Courtney’s mother; Lea Michele sharpens her natural intensity to a fine point as his ambitious campaign manager. As two of Courtney’s friends, Bernard David Jones and Marcel Spears have an easy chemistry that’s fun to watch unfold even in the brief scenes we get with them in between plot points.
Most important is the fact that Brandon Micheal Hall is very charming as Courtney, so much so that after the character predictably starts out his mayorship by making selfish decisions in the name of his rap career, it’s not especially shocking when he eventually swings the other way and prioritizes the greater good of his town.
Still: Hall couldn’t sell that dynamic completely without the script backing him up. And the best example of how Hall’s performance and Bronson’s pilot script work in tandem comes before Courtney wins, in his final mayoral debate. Courtney isn’t taking the debate too seriously until the establishment candidate (played by a guest-starring David Spade) tries to brag about his efforts to beautify a local common space.
“Have you ever even been there?” Courtney interjects in disbelief, before riffing about the space’s disrepair — including the fact that it has so much trash that Bravo wants it to star in a reality show — to laughs and applause. Sure, he’s making jokes, but he’s also demonstrating that he knows Fort Grey better than his opponent — and could very well do a decent job of identifying what people actually care about if he becomes the town’s mayor. Then once he actually does, it’s up to him to realize that potential and step up to the plate (his mother’s straight talk certainly helps).
By the end of its pilot, The Mayor has not only handed Courtney an election victory but has him hesitate to take on the role, launch a cleanup initiative, botch that cleanup initiative, and then finally accept that he has to figure out a way to be both the rapper he wants to be and the mayor he promised he would be. It’s a whole lot to get through in just over 20 minutes, and the strain of packing everything in becomes evident as the episode starts rushing toward its final note of Courtney walking into his new office, ready to do some good.
So overall, The Mayor bites off a little more than it can chew. But it also proves that it not only knows where it’s going — as it teases Courtney’s real passion for his town and the support system that’ll help him in his new job — but where its strengths lie going forward. If the show stays smart about building stories from its characters instead of the other way around (i.e., the Ghosted method), The Mayor could become something great.
New episodes of The Mayor air Tuesdays at 9:30 pm Eastern on ABC. The first episode is currently available to stream on ABC.com and Hulu.