Last Monday TBS debuted Full Frontal, a talk show with a crazy twist: it's hosted by a woman. Ever sinceVanity Fair threw the overwhelming maleness of late night in harsh relief, the premiere of Daily Show alum's Samantha Bee's new show on TBS, has been highly anticipated. From a demographics standpoint, it was sure to be a breath of fresh air. What form it would take was another question.
As is traditional in late night, Full Frontal kicks off each week with a monologue. In the first episode, she mocked the presidential candidates; something she had undoubtedly been thirsting to do for months. She had some solid one-liners; I let out an audible cackle when she referred to Ted Cruz's wife as his "possible hostage." The second segment is a deeper dive on a current topic — in the first episode, she lambasted Kansas state senator Mitch Holmes, who wrote a dress code for the state capital, exclusively for women. (He didn't include men because "they already know how to look professional." Oof.)
The show was solid out of the gate
The third segment of the pilot was the centerpiece: a short doc about Jeb Bush titled "JEB? Ein Film Für Full Frontal," that was easily best segment of the night. Narrated by a skilled Herzog impressionist, it paints a comically poignant portrait of Bush. Highlights include a young man saying if Jeb were a beverage he'd be milk and describing Donald Trump as "an oddly tinted combination of psychiatric symptoms."
"Solid" was the adjective I found myself using to describe the show's premiere again and again. Samantha Bee is hilarious. The writing hits way more than it misses. Granted, much of the show's structure and tone is indebted to The Daily Show. But in Full Frontal's second episode, which aired last night, Bee found her footing. And it was glorious. The format was tweaked from the first week, so that Bee and her staff could address the death of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, and Bee's opening monologue got off to a rocky start, with a cheesy "constitutional crisis alert" bit. But she managed to be both nuanced and uncompromising in taking on Senate leader Mitch McConnell's insistence that Obama not choose the next justice — a flagrant disregard of the Constitution, which according to Bee was written "before machine guns and gay people were invented."
It's clear that Bee won't take as long to find her voice as a host as some of her peers have. But Full Frontal is still navigating three major issues: how it will produce content that will do well on the web, the fact that it airs weekly instead of daily, and how it will aesthetically distinguish itself from The Daily Show.
When The Daily Show reinvented itself with Trevor Noah, they hired Baratunde Thurston, writer and the former director of digital for The Onion, to oversee the show's web content. It's become a crucial strategy for any successful late night show, what with John Oliver and Jimmy Fallon killing it in the morning-after snackable content game. Full Frontal has launched web exclusives as well, including remixes of Ted Cruz's raw campaign footage #CruzCuts video series on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the show. There's a Medium blog. But so far there hasn't been a ton of movement — #CruzCuts received a lukewarm response on Twitter (one received a mere eight retweets) and at publishing time their Medium account has less than 700 followers (even I have more Medium followers than that). What does the show have to do to reach those coveted, digital content-devouring millennials? Is it a question of subject matter, format, or both?
"We're deeply interested in topics like campus protests and student debt," Full Frontal executive producer Jo Miller told The Verge. "Watching our 40-something generation ... dismiss [young activists] as coddled whiners makes us jump out of our skin with rage." Miller, who has been a writer on The Daily Show since 2009, asserts that Full Frontal has no intention to "talk down" to its younger audience. The second episode, with jokes about weed and dildos, particularly seemed aimed at a younger generation than even 31-year-old Trevor Noah's show.
Late night often caters to an older crowd, but Sam Bee manages to appeal to people of all ages. As an early 20-something, I found myself texting my mom, a baby boomer, during last night's episode, and she was just as impressed with Bee as I was.
Full Frontal is still working out its weekly format — or rather, trying to justify why it's a weekly show and not a daily one, so to speak. As much as Bee's fans may want more content from her every week, there is one big benefit to a weekly show: less room to fail. "Rather than chasing the 24-hour news cycle and rushing to get something on the air, we're able to spend more time focusing on a [single] topic or story," Miller says. This is more of a play out of the Last Week Tonight book, which has found success through the quality of its research. John Oliver's show makes for good internet content because it often shines a light on topics we're not really talking about, whether it be the NCAA, the IRS, or scoring an interview with Snowden. Its topics are certainly timely, but it doesn't spend too much time covering the same things its contemporaries cover.
The first episode's Mitch Holmes segment was a step in that deep-dive direction, but the second episode came much closer: in the final segment, Bee journeyed to Syrian refugee camps, spoke to immigration officials, and deftly illustrated the idiocy of the conservative idea that these refugees could be undercover terrorists.
Full Frontal's first episode felt more like an episode of The Daily Show, while the second took cues from Last Week Tonight while also feeling more like its own program. Its aesthetic is still heavily reminiscent of TDS, due in part to the fact that Bee herself, a correspondent for 12 years, undoubtedly influenced that show's sensibility. But 30 minutes just feels too short for a weekly program; this week I was again longing for another episode. This is mostly a good thing; Bee made me actually laugh — something late night seldom makes me do — and I was thirsty for more.
"Sam's voice and her point of view are what differentiate Full Frontal from every other show, and that's what viewers responded to Monday night," Miller says. "We're not going to rely on gimmickry or stunts to make us look different." Full Frontal also notably lacks interviews, celebrity, or otherwise, another departure from The Daily Show. The celebrity interview is a vestige from late night's past, but I usually find myself skipping through Colbert and Noah's interviews, and I can't be alone. Fallon and Kimmel may need stunts, games, and celebrity appearances to make their ratings, but this younger class of talk shows is built to rely on the strength of the host and writers. Without an interview, there's less risk of tuning out.
"We're going to let Sam be Sam," Miller says, and while the show sorts out its digital strategy, that's more than enough. Bee's perspective and range of interests — yes, as a "female woman" — stand out on their own. "What she enjoys is comedic catharsis and jokes that crystallize what the audience has been feeling themselves but may not have articulated." We've watched Sam Bee do political satire for over a decade; and while she'll eventually need that structural a-ha moment that makes the show appointment viewing, last night's episode established Bee as one of the funniest and sharpest voices in late night. I can't wait for next week.