While Netflix has achieved dominance over almost every aspect of television, there’s still one area where the streaming site has had trouble achieving success: topical late-night comedy.
Chelsea Handler, Michelle Wolf and Joel McHale have all debuted high-profile comedy shows on Netflix, aimed at competing with Jimmy Kimmel and Samantha Bee. And all of them have been cancelled fast.
Can Hasan Minhaj, the former “Daily Show” correspondent, break the curse with his new show “Patriot Act”?
Minhaj’s show, which drops a new episode every Sunday night (but, of course, can be watched anytime) has been strong out of the gate, playing to both the strengths of Minhaj and of Netflix. A lot of new shows try different things to see what sticks. Minhaj, in contrast, has stripped away as much as possible to focus on what already works for him.
So in a lean, 25-minute episode, there are no guests, no set, no recurring comedy segments. There’s not even a desk, just Minhaj standing in sneakers on an empty gem-shaped stage. But the stage, and the walls behind Minhaj, are all video screens, able to pull up images, video clips and animated graphics. This may be the first late-night show to incorporate data visualization.
With the briefest of introductions, Minhaj is off, embarking on an extended monologue that’s part stand-up routine, part TED Talk about a single subject, one inspired by recent events but not necessarily bound to the news. This is the perfect balance for Netflix. It feels fresh if you watch an episode the moment it drops, but doesn’t feel stale if you catch up a couple of weeks later.
The opening episode, for example, focuses on Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The second episode looks at how the South Asian community is being used by well-funded conservative activists to end affirmative action in colleges, and the most recent episode shows how Amazon uses ruthless tactics in retail, gaining market share by any means necessary.
Minhaj’s delivery is smooth and forceful, easily pivoting between addressing the camera and feeding off of the energy of the audience. (“That cackle was everything,” he ad-libs to one particularly boisterous audience member.) The episodes are very funny, but the jokes are fully integrated into the topics, not just sprinkled on top like a spoonful of sugar.
But the content goes surprisingly deep, as when Minhaj separates the facts from the rhetoric on affirmative action lawsuits with the help of the surrounding screens. Most surprising and refreshing, though, is how personal Minhaj makes “Patriot Act.”
As an American Muslim whose parents were Indian immigrants, Minhaj reflects on the pressures he and other children of Asian immigrants felt to get into a top-level college, and the belief that they were discriminated against. “I thought I wasn’t going to get into Stanford because some black kid was going to take my spot,” he said. “But I didn’t get into Stanford because I was dumb.”
Jerry Seinfeld once said something to the effect that, in stand-up, “the audience will tell you what’s funny about you.” Which means that the best stand-up comedians try to be themselves as much as possible, speaking from their own unique perspective, and that uniqueness will resonate with an audience more than a comic who tries to please everyone.
“Patriot Act” somehow manages that specificity while Minhaj speaks to broad cultural and political issues. Netflix has ordered 32 episodes of the show, which hopefully means they’ll give “Patriot Act” more of a chance than preceding comedy shows.
Also on streaming: “Hell or High Water” writer-director David Mackenzie re-teams with star Chris Pine on “The Outlaw King,” a historical epic that premieres Friday on Netflix. Pine plays Robert the Bruce, a 14th-century Scottish noble who became a rebel leader fighting against the occupying forces of England.
For something a little lighter, Acorn has premiered the first episode of the six-part Swedish caper show “The Simple Heist” this week. The comedy-drama miniseries follows a retired teacher and retired doctor who, facing financial ruin, take on a daring scheme to rob the main branch of Stockholm Bank.
BritBox, meanwhile, premieres its new series "Dark Heart" on Wednesday. Tom Riley play a detective haunted by the murder of his parents who investigates a string of equally horrific killings.