In an era where successful network television comedies are often hard to come by, a new entry this fall stands out in the crowded pack.
The Mayor joins ABC's Tuesday night lineup, preceded by a black-ish lead-in. Created by Jeremy Bronson and executive produced by Hamilton's Daveed Diggs, the show is toplined by Brandon Micheal Hall.
The young actor is a relative newcomer. Prior to The Mayor, he starred in the first season of the TBS dark comedy, Search Party. With The Mayor, his profile continues to steadily rise, with him being named one of the 'Top 10 TV Stars To Watch in 2017' by Variety. He's also got the film Monster Party, as well as the indie production Lez Bomb, which are both in post-production. It's safe to say that Hall is a rising, talented star to look out for, and his turn in The Mayor is incredible in itself.
The show stars Hall as Courtney Rose, an outspoken, idealistic rapper who runs for office as a publicity stunt and actually gets elected. He surprises everyone (including himself) when he has a natural knack for the job and slowly transforms City Hall. Series regulars are Yvette Nicole Brown (his doting mother), Bernard David Jones and Marcel Spears (his best friends) and Lea Michele (old classmate-turned-rival-turned chief-of-staff).
Photo: ABC/Bob D'Amico
The show's pilot is an adventure, one-half chronicling Rose's campaign and come-from-behind-win, and the other half beginning his journey of growing pains in gelling into his new office. Hall commands each and every scene like a pro and gives the character an electric, endearing aura. You can't help but like Courtney Rose.
Hall is a bit of an anomaly. He's a young black man, headlining his own show on network television. When I told him that verbatim and asked how this moment feels, he was rendered virtually speechless. “It’s a lot, it's a whole lot. It feels exciting. I’m overjoyed. I’m overwhelmed. I understand the responsibility that comes with it, but I feel very blessed. I feel……the way that I’m trying to describe right now is the way I feel (laughs)."
In talking with him, Hall fully understands the impact that he can make and the importance of the representation that he is fulfilling on television. “It’s that ray of sunshine that's like, 'I made a step out, so let me make sure I'm doing something so the kids who are looking back will be like, I need to make a step out.' They will have a way. They can have a path they can travel down."
There are both similarities and differences between himself and the character of Courtney, but the role is one that he's wished for since he began acting. He was trained at South Carolina Governor's School of the Arts and Humanities and NYC's The Juilliard School. “I was doing a lot of roles that weren’t written for me. They weren’t written for a black voice. So I had to learn a dual language. You have to put on a mask and I had to transform into these roles in Our Town or in Chekov or into Shakespeare. I did six years of just trying to almost transform myself into the type of actor that can rock these type of roles, which in some sense deferred me a little bit away from myself."
Nevertheless, he persisted. “Then when I got out, I just kept praying, Trey," he told me. “I was like God, please give me a role in which I can feel more comfortable a role that I can sink my feet into. And he blessed me with this. And every day is a constant reminder to myself that I need to call my homies, I need to talk to my mom, I need to do all of these things to remember where I came from to remember how far I’ve come and how far I can go."
[caption id="attachment_299412" align="alignnone" width="2400"] Photo: ABC/Tony Rivetti
Because of this yearning and his own personal experiences, he says it's not hard to step into the role of Courtney. “It's a black kid selling his mixtapes trying to do his thing, and I did the same thing growing up. But what the difference is — he’s becoming a man. And every day, I have to look at myself in the mirror and authentically ask myself, 'Am I making the choices that are right for me and doing justice for me and my people?' 'Am I going back playing a stereotype?' It was easy to step my feet in this role, but everyday its a challenge because I have to ask myself these questions."
Hall's TV mother is one of the funniest women in the game, Yvette Nicole Brown. “Oh man (laughs), that’s mom on and off the set," Hall says of the actress. “She also came out with Bernard and Marcel to the show last night (referencing his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! last week). My mom came into town and Yvette was like, 'What you need? When can I come over? Can I take y'all out to eat?' ... can I do this, that and the third. The relationship was that bonded the first time we met at the table read."
So if their relationship seems as if it's the same way off-screen as it is on-screen, that's the real deal. “Yvette has this maternal love that is so pure and honest, it kind of throws you a bit because you don't get that every day," he said. That’s what she brings to the role of Dina — this mother who everyone knows, everyone relates to, and when the camera cuts off she’s that same person like, 'Wow you’re not acting.'"
You may recall that during the Television Critics Press Association tour this summer, The Mayor's showrunner Jeremy Bronson insisted that the show was developed pre-Trump, and that despite the state of U.S. politics, the show isn't tackling Trump, and isn't meant to be a parody or satire of current politics.
Diggs pitched the show to ABC a month before Trump even became the GOP's official nominee.
Photo: ABC/Tony Rivetti
I asked Hall was he surprised that when the show premiered, that the country would be as divided as it is now. His response? Not at all.
“You can I can attest to this growing up in the South. We know stuff hasn’t changed, It’s just evolved with the times. It’s not new, it’s just shocking to most people because it’s finally being broadcast in a way that’s never been broadcast before," he said, likening it to how people reacted to first seeing the brutality of the Civil Rights Movement.
“When they finally saw the dogs being sicked and the hosed being shot on black people, it was like, 'Oh my gosh, what’s going on.' Things have not become different. We've got a man in office whose like, 'I don’t care, I'm gonna tell you what I think about it and I'm going to be disgustingly honest about it.'"
The election of Trump has led him to ask himself a question — what was/is the necessity of these racist and prejudicial institutions (such as slavery)? This is something he says he has to ask himself while working on Courtney. “Reading James Baldwin, I learned it was necessary for commerce and power — it's just control; it's completely out of our hands. Until that question is raised, personally, I don't think things are going to get any better, because it holds everyone accountable for their own responsibilities and actions." In Courtney's bedroom on the show, there is a James Baldwin poster on the wall, among an eclectic mix of other public figures — perhaps a nod to what Hall is feeling himself.
“So no, it wasn’t shocking to me when I took on the role that Donald Trump had become president. It’s scary, but hey, the next day we woke up and went to work, we figured some stuff out. That’s what we do," he said, citing The Kalief Browder Story, 13th and The New Jim Crow as references to the time we're living in. “Trump is in office and yeah these people are making outrageous comments, but because of the social media and the internet, everyone is involved. No one can really turn a cheek and if they do, that;s a choice. Before it was word of mouth, but today you see the videos and you see the injustices. That's what this show does. It brings us injustices and those issues. From the roads down the street that need to be fixed. To politicians in office that shouldn't be there, that's what we're tackling. And sometimes Courtney doesn’t get it, but that's the point, he’s trying to figure it out. In this role, I finally have my purpose to talk about these things."
On what folks should be most excited about this season on The Mayor, Hall turns to his castmates. “The first big moment is the dynamic and humorous duo of Marcel Spears and Bernard Jones. If you need to laugh your head off, with the amount of improv and the smart, witty things that come out of their mouth, that’s gonna be a highlight. They are powerhouse comedians."
Photo: ABC/Tony Rivetti
He also says the audience should look forward to Courtney's relationship with the other characters, Dina and Valentina respectively. “The relationship between Dina and Courtney...that mom/son relationship. Being a black mother and black son in a single family home, there are a lot of things that people can relate to there with that authentic relationship. Then the relationship between Courtney and Val. There is no love situation there, but there is a work relationship there. It’s from a completely different perspective."
There's also the original music produced for the show, which should be a real treat for viewers. “We’ve got some music dropping with it from Daveed," he said. “He and I have been working in the studio and we’re making some amazing stuff. That dude he can write some lyrics. With every episode, a track will drop, so hopefully, there will be an album that Courtney can come out and promote. We’ll see what happens."
All in all, he says The Mayor will be a fun time. “It's addressing political issues, but we’ll make you laugh, we’ll also make you cry a bit."
At the end of the day, he wants it to have an impact on the next generation. “I really hope this show and the character of Courtney will impact some little kid’s life. I hope it educates the youth. That’s going to be the winner. As we fight this battle for the next three years, these are the kids that are going to take on the battle. I hope this rings in their ears and they look at this show. I really hope that this show does this at the end of the day, and if it doesn’t I don’t think we’ve done our job."
The Mayor airs Tuesdays on ABC.