It’s a new year and — as so often happens — there’s a new Ted Danson show. If I've learned one thing in my three decades of watching screens for a living, it’s that almost nothing is more bankable than a Ted Danson show.
Ever since taking a three-year break after Cheers went off the air in 1993, Danson has been working in TV pretty much continuously, and the amazing thing is that almost everything he's touched has turned to gold. So which are his greatest TV roles since Sam Malone, and where among them — based on the two episodes I've previewed — does his new NBC series Mr Mayor rank? Let us see.
10. Ink (CBS, 1996-1997)
Danson began his comeback in 1996 with this sitcom about two married journalists. It co-starred his then-new wife Mary Steenburgen, and in researching this show I remembered what it was that Danson was actually coming back from: his incredibly misguided decision to appear in blackface and drop the N-word a dozen times at a roast of his then-girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg three years earlier. Ink came at the end of the Diane English-Murphy Brown era, and felt dated. The pilot episode showed Danson and Steenburgen working in their newsroom — on manual typewriters. In 1996! It lasted a season.
9. Help Me Help You (ABC, 2006)
In this 2006 ABC sitcom, Danson played a world-famous shrink who has just broken up with his wife and has started holding group therapy with a new batch of social misfits. With the exception of Jane Lynch, all his co-stars were forgettable and the show was wedged into a highly competitive time slot — back when time slots were a thing. Help Me Help You also lasted just one season, which was fine because it freed Ted Danson up for better roles...
8. Damages (FX, 2007-2010)
...Namely, as a maniac on this FX thriller opposite Glenn Close. Danson plays the CEO of a large company that has tanked, putting thousands out of work, in a storyline loosely based on the 2001 collapse of Enron. His character is also going through a midlife crisis and taking up extreme sports to compensate, a la Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling. I only rank this role this far down because the focus was more on the drama between Close’s and Rose Byrne’s characters, and because drama feels more like a sideline for Danson.
7. CSI and CSI: Cyber (CBS, 2011-2016)
In 2011, the wheels were starting to wobble on the CBS crime show that started them all. Original star William Petersen had left, and Marg Helgenberger had one foot out the door. NCIS and the other CSIs had more cachet. Then came Danson. In a nod to NBC’s Homicide and Law & Order (just as CSI was itself a nod to the X-Files), Danson was hired as CSI’s resident Richard Belzer character, that guy who’s incapable of uttering anything entirely serious. It worked so well that, four years and 84 episodes later, Danson was given his own spinoff. Unfortunately, CSI: Cyber never found an audience, perhaps because “cyber” was a 20-year-old term for the Internet.
6. Mr. Mayor (NBC, 2021)
Lately, Ted Danson has been getting a lot of mileage out of playing Ted Danson — that guy who’s always on TV. In this new NBC sitcom from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, Danson may have his most meta role yet, playing a famous guy who’s elected mayor of Los Angeles largely because he was famous. It would be as though, instead of a character on a show called Neil Bremer, the actual Ted Danson had been elected mayor and hired the writers of 30 Rock to follow him around. During a press conference to announce a plastic-straw ban, Danson is asked how people will drink iced coffee. “Make popsicles!” (Follow-up: How will people do cocaine? “Don’t do cocaine! You’ll go broke and get the runs!”) Through the first two episodes, however, Mr. Mayor has a bit of a Help Me Help You problem — the supporting cast is weak. Not even Holly Hunter, a superwoke councilwoman, rolls with the punches the way Danson can.
5. Fargo (FX, 2015)
Danson’s best dramatic turn on TV was his season as Sheriff Hank Larsson, the father-in-law of Lou Solverson, in the second season of the Fargo anthology, set in 1970s Minnesota. He shared the screen with a large and talented ensemble, but only a character played by Ted Danson could talk earnestly about making up his own language in an Esperanto-like quest for world peace and not seem totally off the wall.
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-2021)
Danson and Steenburgen agreed to be cast as “themselves” even though Danson has said he felt sorry for Larry David after watching the show’s bewildering pilot. Though their roles are occasional, they feel as essential to the off-kilter comedy of Curb as Jeff Garlin or Cheryl Hines. The show’s decision to have Ted break up with Mary and start dating Cheryl was inspired and required Ted to stretch a bit, since in real life the Danson-Steenburgens remain happily married.
3. Becker (CBS, 1998-2004)
Critics didn’t like this show much, but I thought it was great. A big ratings hit that ran for years, it featured Danson as a grumpy doctor who runs a clinic in the South Bronx, although the show had more of a small-town feel to it. The running joke was that Becker didn’t really like his patients, or people generally, and lets them know it. Danson was surrounded by equally jaded foils and the interplay generated a lot of laughs. It often takes time to develop a supporting cast, so there may be hope for Mr. Mayor after all.
1. (tie) Bored To Death (HBO, 2009-2011)
If this HBO sex comedy wasn’t the most talented ensemble Ted Danson will ever be involved in, it certainly was the tightest. He played George Christopher, the book editor and confidant for author-slash-gumshoe Jonathon (Jason Schwartzman), whose best friend Ray (Zach Galifianikis) was the show’s third leg. Danson was described by series creator Jonathan Ames as an amalgam of literary icons George Plimpton and Christopher Hitchens, hence “George Christopher,” but all I saw was Danson hilariously coping with everything from life-threatening illness to literary one-upsmanship with ease.
1. (tie) The Good Place (NBC, 2016-2020)
As cosmic architect and con man in Mike Schur’s ethical comedy The Good Place, Ted Danson was given a role that possibly only he could have done this well. Even though he had a stronger role in Bored to Death, the quality of this role is just as praiseworthy. There never will be another show on television quite like The Good Place, whose finale happened almost a year ago (which is to say ten years ago). By then Danson’s character had already learned the secret of humanity, which is that it has a conscience, and had made the journey over the skybridge from malevolence to benevolence in a charming but barely perceptible transformation. It was a role perfectly suited to the actor who has gone by many names over the years, but whom we’ve come to appreciate just for being Ted Danson.
Mr. Mayor premieres January 7th at 8:00 PM ET on NBC.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Ted Danson, Bored to Death, The Good Place, Mr. Mayor, Tina Fey