A worthy successor to The Daily Show, The Nightly Show suffers from some growing pains but has the potential to become a successful series.
One can’t envy Larry Wilmore the task that’s before him as the host of The Nightly Show, stepping into the treasured post-Daily Show time slot occupied for nearly a decade by the iconic (and already dearly missed) Colbert Report. The comedian and writer has been a prominent and welcome presence on Daily for years, but he was hardly among the flashier choices floated by audiences, critics and fans to fill the departing Stephen Colbert’s spot – a spot not just associated with a show and its host but with a litany of characters, recurring bits and indeed an entire strata of Millennial popular culture devoted to it.
So it’s a relief to be able to report that Nightly and its host have both landed firmly on the side of success in their first week(s) of existence. It’s a good show, and Wilmore is a fine host making good on his promise (once it was determined that he would not be doing a “character” like Colbert was) to be more than John Stewart’s cleanup act. The question will be whether a show and a host both (thus far) seemingly committed to a genial, conversational tone that diverges so sharply from Daily’s famously acidic snarking-to-keep-from-crying muckraking takedowns of politicians and the media can find a fanbase (and a voice) of its own in a political-comedy landscape that’s running away from geniality as fast as it can.
Thus far, the setup (which should be familiar to fans of Bill Maher and John Oliver‘s respective HBO series) works like this: Wilmore opens with a scripted monologue laying out his take on the major news items of the day, eventually segueing to a topic of particular prominence that he expands upon in greater detail. Once the host has said his piece, Nightly shift’s to its main showpiece; a panel discussion of the day’s main news item(s) among a set of guests with Wilmore acting as moderator. For a wrap-up, guests are asked to give a brief, unvarnished take on the matter in answer to a question posed to them by Wilmore himself, and are awarded prizes (a “Keep It 100” sticker or a bag of “Weak Tea”) depending on how sincere they appear to be.
Of the package, it’s the “Keep It 100” bit that feels the shakiest early on. The panel format as a whole calls to mind Real Time’s celebrity vs. pundit shouting match showcases, but Wilmore isn’t 1/10th the agitator that Maher is. However funny, he wants to have an honest discussion and (thus far) has appeared hesitant to let his guests near each other’s jugulars – in a discussion about the anti-vaccination movement, you could feel the host (and, likely, the producers) expending psychic energy trying to will the panel not to “gang up” on the lone “anti-vaxxer” voice among them. That kind of attitude just isn’t really conducive to holding people’s feet to the fire at the end.
More problematically (at least from a long-term perspective) it also isn’t thus far yielding the kind of “so-and-so goes ballistic against _______!” viral moments that are the real lifeblood of 21st Century issue-comedy. Wilmore is putting on a good show, but he’s yet to offer up any kind of memetic “branding” outside of a go-to joke where he responds to criticism of President Obama with a shrug and a matter-of-fact explanation that he voted for the President strictly “Because he’s Black.” It’s a slyly subversive gag, reminiscent of fellow Comedy Central fixtures Key & Peele: the soft-spoken, “non-threatening” Black man dropping casual racial-“radicalism” with the casual deadpan one might use to describe the weather and waiting to meet the other guy’s nervous sputter with an incredulous “What?” But it’s not a show-carrier.
The panels themselves, while solid, are also going to need some polish. A new series is always going to have some growing pains as it aims to establish its destination-hood for recognizable faces seeking plugs and facetime, and Nightly is looking for four fresh ones each night instead of just one. And while the low-fi sensibility of “Here’s who we found to talk things out today” randomness can yield interesting moments, it feels like sometimes a certain amount of thematic-cohesion between the mix of B-list pundits, mid-range celebrities and formerly-private citizen-noteworthies that current form the production’s pool.
In a way, this may be a case of unforced error: The show went into production with the much less immediately-Daily-reminiscent title of The Minority Report; both a funny riff on the fact of Wilmore’s newcomer presence (“Where’s The Colbert Report and who’s this new Black guy?”) and a mission-statement: The goal would be to bring voices and issues largely overlooked by the mainstream media (and thus not already picked-clean by other news-satire shows) to the forefront. That title was forfeit when an actual TV series based on Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report movie got greenlit months ago, leaving this series with a more marketable title (they might as well have just gone with Daily Show II) that doesn’t really described what it’s doing – it’s not “just” the sequel to the Daily.
Still, these are growing pains. Nightly has a good host and a solid concept, plus a lead-in from one of the most iconic cable series ever – that’s enough (if they want it) to build a successful series from.
Bottom Line: Wilmore is good and the setup is solid.
Reccomendation: Worth leaving on between Daily Show and @Midnight.[rating=4.0]