Logo for ABC's new comedy about local politics, The Mayor

Teaching Civics with Episode 1 of the Mayor: The Pilot

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I know, I’m a couple weeks late. The Mayor, a new comedy on ABC, debuted two weeks ago on October 3.

When I first started seeing ads for the show, I wondered, “Is this going to be good for teaching civics?” The premise is that a young, undiscovered rapper decides to run for Mayor as a publicity stunt – and he wins.

On the one hand, it wraps local politics up into a familiar package. The main character and his friends are young, hip millennials that students can relate to. But on the other hand, I was skeptical of the extent to which it would portray politics in a realistic (enough) way.

I missed the pilot when it first aired, but I got caught up last night. And although I wasn’t fully convinced by the pilot episode, episode two caught my attention. I’d definitely feel confident in saying that there will be some episodes that have enough value to watch in class, and as a whole it would be worth advising your students to watch it and setting aside some time to discuss it afterwards.

To that end, I plan on following the show through this first season and writing up a post about each episode. I’ll include a brief plot summary and a highlight of some reasons why that episode may be relevant to your social studies or civics class.

We’ll start today with the pilot, and then we’ll catch up with episodes two and three over the next two days.

Plot Summary of The Mayor (S01E01 – The Pilot)

In case you haven’t seen the pilot episode of The Mayor, we’ll start with a brief plot summary. You may be able to stream the episode on ABC.com or Hulu. If not, you can also¬†download the episode through Amazon.

The episode opens with the mayoral race in Fort Grey under way. This is a fictional town in California, and unfortunately it does not have it’s own website like the City of Pawnee.

The main character, Courtney Rose, is an undiscovered rapper looking for a break. He’s also a twenty something millennial living at home with his mother. He decides to give local politics a go as a publicity stunt, and he runs for mayor of Fort Grey.

Although he is seen as a novelty, he makes some waves at the mayoral debate by calling out his opponent’s “bullshit.” No, seriously, at one point he takes out a cell phone and says he’s, “Calling bullshit.”

Courtney's two friends are sitting on the couch watching him win the election, and they're shocked.

Courtney Rose Wins the Race – And Then What?

Courtney ends up winning the race, much to his surprise, and then he faces the task of governing. One of his old classmates, who also happened to be his opponent’s campaign manager, becomes his chief of staff. Two of his best friends join his staff as well.

His first major undertaking is to clean up a part of the city that has been overrun with garbage. He’s still Mayor-elect, but he organizes a party to attract a crowd and then puts them to work fixing things up. In the middle of the party, he gets a call from a club manager and he has a choice – does he stay and clean up the city or does he take his shot at being a rapper on stage?

I’m not going to completely spoil the episode. Go watch it to see what happens.

What’s Related to Civics and Worth Discussing?

Perhaps the most interesting and useful part about this episode for teaching civics is when Courtney talks about the barrier to entry for local elections.

So yeah, it turns out it’s super easy to run for local office. Step one, get 200 signatures. Step two, don’t be a felon. And I don’t go to trial till next year.

Local election laws will vary, and you may need more or less than 200 signatures to get on the ballot. But the point holds true. If you invest some time into walking your neighborhood in search of signatures, you can be a candidate for local office – without spending a dime.

This is an important lesson for students to learn. Yes, running for office is a commitment. Yes, it can cost a lot of money to mount a successful campaign – especially for the state legislature or for Congress. But the barrier to entry for a local election, especially if you live in a small-ish city, is pretty low. The biggest thing standing in your way is probably your fear, not the filing requirements.

Is that public policy?

A second interesting theme worth discussing is the clean-up party. This is a perfect illustration of the difference between public policy and private activity and philanthropy.

If you use Project Citizen in your class, then you’ve no doubt spent some time discussing this distinction with students. When you go before the city council and suggest a plan of action, they’re looking for policy ideas. That’s what government does.

But, as it turns out, politicians engage in private, philanthropic activity all the time. Often times it’s campaign activity disguised as community service. But politicians do things like clean up neighborhoods and donate food to local families.

When Courtney Rose plans his big “clean up the Commons party,” he’s not doing it as mayor. He’s doing it as the mayor-elect. He’s still a private citizen, and he could easily have done the same thing without ever having run for mayor.

Where Does the Show Get Politics Wrong?

I think the scene that annoyed me the most was the mayoral debate. It feeds into a misconception about politics that survives, despite having little basis in fact.

In the episode, the debate is packed. There is a large audience, and they’re responding to what Courtney is saying. Obviously, it’s a plot device meant to demonstrate how he’s tapping into the people’s latent anger. But is this what local politics is really like?

No. It’s not.

I’ve been around local elections in New Jersey’s largest city – Newark. You can put a half dozen city council candidates on the stage, and you won’t fill the room. Mayoral candidates might do a bit better, but it’s still not going to pack out the house. Heck, we’re having a statewide election in New Jersey right now and it looked like there were empty seats at the last Gubernatorial debate.

But even if what you say resonates with the crowd… it’s not going to have a big impact on the way people vote. If the room is full on a debate night, that’s because one of the candidates is running a good field campaign and he or she turned out supporters to watch. Those people would vote anyway. The debate isn’t appealing to many undecided voters.

The winning debate performance is a great literary conceit, but it’s not just realistic.

So Should You Keep Watching The Mayor?

Yes, yes you should.

The pilot episode was ok. It had some good punch lines, but everything was a bit forced and a bit too high energy. There were some good political lessons, but it also reinforced some misconceptions.

But thankfully, it gets better from here. I watched the second episode and loved it. Not only do the writers and cast seem to find their rhythm, but the second episode has some great lessons to teach about civics and local government.

So check out the show – stream it on ABC or Hulu, or download it on Amazon.

And check out these thoughts on other episodes from Season 1 of The Mayor, and how they can be used to teach civics and government.

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