Will Hasan Minhaj Be Netflix's John Oliver?
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj isn’t Netflix’s first attempt at adding a weekly topical comedy series to their platform. Earlier this year, the streamer launched The Break with Michelle Wolf and The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale — and then cancelled them after only their first seasons. And though Netflix doesn’t reveal audience numbers, it isn’t hard to imagine why this kind of program might be a hard sell for the streaming giant. Netflix has seen great success with original stand-up comedy specials, and has invested heavily in that genre. But those are one-off programs with a seemingly endless shelf life. They are made to be discovered and enjoyed in a single sitting when the mood strikes. On the other side of the spectrum are the Netflix original series, which are made to be binged. Whole seasons are uploaded at once and consumed in short order. Viewers may not watch the series as soon as it premieres, but when they do get around to starting it, it’s unlikely that they watch it episode by episode over a span of weeks.
Series like Patriot Act don’t quite fit either bucket. Thought Netflix thoughtfully launched the series with 2 episodes this weekend, we’ll have to wait for a new episode to arrive each Sunday. It’s a show you’ll have to remember to check back on — or wait a few weeks and then binge a set of episodes, and hope the topics weren’t too timely. It’s not much of a conundrum by regular TV standards — but it simply isn’t how Netflix has programmed its audience to operate. Still, if any show was going to break the weekly rollout losing streak, Patriot Act just might be the one.
Most of us probably first encountered Minhaj as a correspondent on The Daily Show — and in a few key ways, Patriot Act resembles another correspondent’s solo effort: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Oliver’s series maintains relevance in a rapidly changing news ecosystem by going deep on topics. While everyone else is trying to stay current with the news of the day, Last Week Tonight picks a current story and then educates the audience on just how deep and wide-reaching that story really is — with plenty of outrage and punchlines to make it all go down smoothly. Patriot Act is similarly targeted, spending a breezy 25 minutes or so on a single story, something in the news but with a lot of background to unravel and hypocrisy to examine. For his first episode, Minhaj tackles how a lawsuit against Harvard is threatening affirmative action, and how a conservative activist is using Asian Americans to push through his own agenda. The second episode is all about Saudi Arabia and its not-so-progressive crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in the wake of the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi (with a mini secondary topic involving how Indian criminals provide hope for overachieving Indian American kids everywhere). And these two topics are great showcases for Minhaj as a host. Unlike Oliver, he isn’t just commenting on the stories as an outsider but as someone with a personal, cultural perspective behind his jokes. He speaks to the Asian American angle as someone of South Asian descent, and addresses the internal conflict he feels about America’s long ties with Saudi Arabia as a Muslim. At one point he offers a breathless, detailed 40-second explanation of the conflict in Yemen, and receives a deserved round of applause from the studio audience. “Now don’t clap,” he responds, “That is a global atrocity.” And then he follows it up by comparing it to the Golden Globes.
So it’s fair to say that Minhaj hasn’t abandoned the mic-drop commentary style of The Daily Show. He peppers the punchlines throughout — the easy comparisons to accessible pop culture touchstones we all can relate to — but to his credit, that isn’t the only form of joke he relies on. I found myself laughing more in the moments where he’s just straightforwardly telling it like it is, with his incredulous face looking dead at the camera. His strength is his ability to cleanly cut through bullsh*t, and sometimes the tendency to build to those more obvious punchlines almost felt like a distraction. But through it all, he’s a commanding and passionate presence, like your hip college professor got a chance to show off his charisma and brains with a TED talk. Minhaj paces the stage in sneakers rather than sitting behind a desk in a suit, and it fits his energy well — though the production design left something to be desired. The stage itself is spiffy, like a wrap-around screen with swooping graphics, but the audience also wraps around, leaving Minhaj playing to cameras on all sides. The constant changes in angles were a bit off-putting.
Still, that’s a minor complaint in an all-around strong debut. I’m interested to see how he tackles future topics, especially if he doesn’t necessarily have a personal perspective on them, but I trust that he’ll continue to make everything feel personal. I’m also curious to see if we get more change-ups in the format, like that video package of naughty kids at the end of the second episode. And even if we don’t, that’s ok. Dude makes standing on stage lecturing for a half hour genuinely entertaining, if not necessarily earth-shattering.
Header Image Source: Netflix
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