Hasan Minhaj has an unusually hard task ahead of him with his new political comedy series “Patriot Act.” For one, thanks to the extreme proliferation of cable and streaming networks. there’s no shortage of similar shows out there, standing by for whatever fresh material/hell that week’s news might offer. For another, Netflix has a notoriously rocky history of launching “late night” comedy shows (in quotes because, well, they drop first thing in the morning on the streaming platform, but their style remains similar to that genre’s traditional formats). Over the past year, Chelsea Handler, Joel McHale, and Michelle Wolf have all seen their timely, weekly efforts die on the Netflix vine without getting enough network support and/or viewers to grow (though as always, it’s hard to say for sure given Netflix’s purposefully mysterious programming strategies). What’s to say that Minhaj, demonstrably talented though he is, can beat these odds?
“Patriot Act,” which dropped two episodes on October 28, doesn’t run away from political comedy convention while also aiming for something just different enough to make it stand apart. Taking cues from his own stellar Netflix standup special “Homecoming King,” Minhaj stands in front of a series of screens which punctuate his points with images, video, and data. (The effect, as he jokingly puts it in the second episode, makes him look like he’s giving a “woke TED Talk.”) He never sits behind a desk, as he often did as a correspondent on “The Daily Show.” Instead, he stands and gestures, cajoles and emphasizes, straight to camera. This doesn’t always work; within any given minute, Minhaj turns to so many cameras that it can become a little headspinning, not to mention that it feels a little strange having him so steadfastly speaking to the audience at home without playing more off the audience visibly sitting feet away. But it is different, and in an otherwise crowded field, that matters.
As for content and format, “Patriot Act” has thus far made a couple smart and pointed choices. While most other political comedy shows tend to divide shows into different segments in order to cover a wider breadth of subjects, “Patriot Act” tackles a single subject over 20 minutes or so, making its closest analogue “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” And like that show, neither of “Patriot Act’s” first two episodes are necessarily tied to the events of the week that preceded them, but they still feel timely. (The premiere takes on the possible death of affirmative action, while the second digs into Saudi Arabia’s business ties, as related to the murder of “Washington Post” reporter Jamal Khashoggi.) By making its subject matter even just a tad more evergreen, “Patriot Act” makes the likelihood of a more casual Netflix viewer wanting to catch up that much more likely, which could in turn make the show a more solid investment for the streamer than shows that effectively expire after their news cycle does.
But probably the sharpest tool in “Patriot Act’s” arsenal is its host’s sharp, singular perspective. Minhaj is the first Indian-American to host this kind of show, and “Patriot Act” (led by Minhaj’s co-creator/head writer Prashanth Venkataramanujam) makes it count. By virtue of having an experience with South Asian parents, growing up in California balancing bifurcated culture shock, and being part of a larger first-generation community, Minhaj’s material about something like affirmative action or the context of Saudi Arabia’s widespread corruption is simply richer, more personal, and different than any of his white peers could contribute. He pointedly both celebrates Asian-Americans’ accomplishments and reveals the disappointing conflicts within communities that, again, no other political comedy host can. In a time when the most powerful people are championing monochrome culture and willful ignorance, seeing different perspectives such as Minhaj get this kind of platform isn’t just welcome, but necessary.
Talk show/stand-up comedy, 30 mins. Airs weekly, Sundays on Netflix.
Cast: Hasan Minhaj.
Crew: Executive producers: Hasan Minhaj, Jim Margolis, Prashanth Venkataramanujam, Michelle Caputo, Shannon Hartman, and Jennie Church-Cooper.