If you want to watch a TV show that recaps the latest news with a healthy amount of jokes and comically bad photoshops, you have a lot of choices. There’s The Daily Show With Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, TBS’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. This week, however, there is one less option: Netflix has canceled Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, a show that superficially didn’t seem all that different from its competitors, but with each half-hour installment, it proved itself among the best.
In 2020, it can be hard to watch these shows. As clever as the jokes can be and as deep as they can dig to surface under-seen issues, current events have become unimaginably bleak, and the United States’ political response to them has been more terrible than our darkest satirical minds could have imagined. This sort of programming feels like a relic from another era, the young liberal answer to Fox News, swapping out racism and invective for clever humor and fact-checked information. The ultimate purpose is the same, though: a receptacle for our collective anger, even if that anger was motivated by a desire for a more equitable world.
Patriot Act felt different, though. Patriot Act was already mad, and it knew you were, too. It wasn’t interested in getting you riled up about something new, but all that shit you already slog through to get through the day? The show wanted to break that stuff down to its disparate parts and tell you what could be done about it.
Elections, college, retirement, streaming media, public transportation, video game harassment, drug prices, student loans — all topics that most viewers of Patriot Act already have to deal with and require no expertise to understand how broken they are. The June 28th episode of the show — its de facto finale — was entitled “Why Doing Taxes Is So Hard,” and it serves as a good summation of what the show had to offer: a dive into something so thoroughly messed-up and so common that it had evaded examination, brought to you by an ebullient and energetic man with great comic timing and an even better stylist. What’s more, like the reporting it was based on, it had a shelf life: doing taxes has sucked for a long time, and odds are that isn’t changing!
Minhaj and the Patriot Act team also labored to center nonwhite perspectives, and in doing so, validate nonwhite anger at a world clearly constructed to exclude them. It’s a subtle thing, but in the space of late-night news comedy shows where the (white) subtext is often we shouldn’t even have to be worrying about this, Minhaj’s show took the time to look immigrant kids and diversity hires in the eye from a place of understanding: you know this stuff, so let’s find the cleanest way through it.
It also helped that Minhaj — a ridiculously affable man who, even in comedic performances like Homecoming King seemed to want nothing more than to walk from one end of a giant stage to the other and talk about his top five favorite sneakers — actually got mad. That’s not to say that his counterparts were not angry (anger is coal burned for laughter in this genre), but Minhaj’s stage persona is one that comes across as paper-thin: he says something, and then you see what he thinks about that statement on his face, clear as day.
This made Patriot Act feel much more conversational. Minhaj’s emotions tracked with yours, and the show modulated with them. It helped that the show didn’t position him as a neutral host but as an individual. Minhaj frequently made it clear that his identity influenced his perspective, centering (or calling out) the South Asian community whenever possible.
It doesn’t seem like there’s any saving Patriot Act, at least at its current home. Talk shows don’t work on Netflix, and Patriot Act already got an extra seven episodes beyond its initial 32-episode order. There’s some comfort, though, that it’ll live there, a collection of mostly evergreen stories that all start with the same intro: hip-hop-inspired horns blaring as the chaos of our modern world surrounds this skinny brown dude, bewildered he has to explain all this, but about to give it his best shot.