In this era of post-peak television, the late night/sketch comedy television market has become quite oversaturated, like most other television genres. There’s Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Seth Meyers, all competing for our attention every night. That’s not to mention the shows that put a topical political or pop-cultural spin on late night television — like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (2014–), “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” (2015–), “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” (2016–) or Busy Phillips’ new variety show “Busy Tonight.” Now, Hasan Minhaj, formerly of “The Daily Show,” is throwing his hat into the ring. Whether or not he deserves the audience’s attention is another question altogether.
With episodes released every Sunday on Netflix, “Patriot Act” is structurally very similar to “Last Week Tonight.” Each week, the show spends most of its roughly 25-minute run time focused on a single issue, such as Amazon’s retail dominance or the lawsuit against Harvard University on affirmative action. Like Oliver, who is also an alum of “The Daily Show,” Minhaj’s monologue is supported by an incredible amount of research and supplemented with pop culture humor and metaphors to put the absurdity of the issue in perspective. It’s an impressive feat to have relevant jokes that do not feel dated by the time the episodes are released. Given the rapidity with which we pass through pop culture and how quickly national conversations come and go, even Oliver — whose Emmy Awards sleep soundly on his shelf at night — can have references that feel a week or two too late.
Most in common with Oliver’s show is the ‘takedown’ style of “Patriot Act.” Each week, Minhaj is able to show the corrupt nature of our highest geopolitical and economic institutions. In the wake of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s death, for example, Minhaj not only attacked Mohammed bin Salman but also reminded the viewer that many sectors of the United States are financially tied to Saudi Arabia and therefore responsible for bin Salman’s behavior. While the format can feel derivative at times, “Patriot Act” works hard to show audiences they care about highlighting the issues they discuss.
Most of the evidence Minhaj cites in his monologues is clearly displayed behind him, lit up by a dozen LED screens; this is where the similarities to “Last Week Tonight” and all other late night shows end and “Patriot Act” truly comes into its own. This allows viewers to not tire of hearing Minhaj speak, because it feels as though the screens are doing the work of the monologue, showing the viewer just how appalling the situation is with captivating visuals.
On top of that, Minhaj stays standing throughout the entire episode, allowing him to form a more casual relationship with his studio audience. Often, Minhaj continues a joke if it lands or responds to the audience if it receives gasps. This also allows his onstage presence to be a little more dynamic, and the camera consequently reflects that with a number of differently angled shots.
What many appreciate most about Minhaj is the approach he takes in some of his exposés. For instance, in the beginning of the episode on Amazon, Minhaj opens by admitting that he, too, struggles with balancing his morals against convenience. “I am way more lazy than I am woke,” Minhaj said. “I deleted Uber … and then I landed in Vancouver and I was like ‘Dammit they don’t have Lyft here.’” Minhaj recognizes the grip Amazon has on our daily lives and sees the gray area in the conflict.
The most important emotion “Patriot Act” makes its viewers feel is anxiety, not only for our increasingly doomed world but also for the future of the show itself. If late night talk shows have taught us anything, it’s that they require patience. “Patriot Act” is not up to the quality of “Last Week Tonight” or able to reach the nostalgically high bar of “The Daily Show” in its prime, but it is still enjoyable in its own right. Both of those shows took time to grow into what they have become, and Minhaj has plenty of time to find his footing. If you have free time on a Sunday night and want to learn something new about modern America while having a good laugh, “Patriot Act” may be a good choice. But once it finds its voice a little more, it could become a great one.