BY INKOO KANG
The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore's great misfortune isn't that it replaces The Colbert Report, but that it premieres after Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. The Colbert Report was sui generis, and will likely remain so, because such a series makes leviathan demands on its host: crackerjack comedic skills, superb acting chops, and the massive humility to subsume himself completely into his character. Last Week Tonight, on the other hand, is a gauntlet thrown down before every other late-night comedy show (and news program), defying them to attempt its rare combination of smart, sidesplitting and viral.
Oliver's HBO series is as good as it is because its writing staff has an entire week to write and rewrite each episode until it's dazzlingly streamlined. Dense with information, tightly choreographed, and then probably edited to shave off any woolly scruff, it boasts clean lines.
Based on its series premiere, The Nightly Show has no intentions to slack off in the Big Issues department. After a recap of the news ("Black people didn't get nominated for an Oscar? Yeaaah, I'm mad, I guess," he wavered in response to the Selma controversy), Wilmore introduced "the state of black protest" as the theme of his inaugural episode: Who are its leaders, what should protesters demand, what's hip-hop's role in political activism, and are any of these demonstrations and "die-ins" accomplishing anything?
It's thrilling that such difficult questions are being asked at all, especially on MLK Day, on which Wilmore became TV's only late-night host of color. But The Nightly Show team also know that Wilmore can't possibly answer them to any satisfaction, so they've delegated the responses to a panel — in the case of the pilot, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, comedian Bill Burr, rapper Talib Kweli, and MTV India VJ Shenaz Treasury. The loosey-goosey, hangout format of the group discussion, which comprises two entire segments of the first episode, is The Nightly Show's most significant departure from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report — and its most disappointing.
But let's back up for a minute to discuss what does work. First, there's the 53-year-old Wilmore himself, or at least his comedic persona as a broad-shouldered, never-loses-his-cool voice of authority. During his eight-year tenure as The Daily Show's Senior Black Correspondent, when he was frequently the funniest person on the series, Wilmore often played the tortured-logic contrarian to Stewart's everyman.
On his own program, Wilmore loses much of that detached irony to settle in to the role of the straight-shooter, in more ways than one. If Stewart/Colbert is how a lot of young people get their news, The Nightly Show might be how many of those viewers — whose overwhelming whiteness The Colbert Report frequently sent up ("Happy Black History Month to all my black viewer!") — regularly hear a black liberal perspective on the news. But Wilmore has signaled in the press and through the upside-down map of the world behind him — a just-as-accurate look at the world, but from a different perspective than the one we're used to — his dedication to the voices of all underdogs.
Wilmore will also further develop his show persona through a post-panel segment, in which he'll answer a question asked by a Twitter user (#KeepIt100, explained below) in every episode. For the inaugural episode, he takes a query formulated by his staff: "What's the last racist thought you had?" Now, that's a hashtag I don't want to look up; I hope The Nightly Show interns have stomachs of steel.
Despite some first-day stiffness, Wilmore offered a great round-up of the Oscar nominations (he was really disappointed by the snubbing of the one film that really spoke to him: The Lego Movie). He chuckled at a few of his own jokes, perhaps out of nervousness, but probably as a reflection of his natural gregariousness. I look forward to Wilmore getting more comfortable behind his desk, expounding on racial and non-racial topics, and eventually interacting with correspondents of his own.
And then I'll very likely mute the TV until the Twitter segment at the end of the half-hour, because the panel format, which makes up the middle two-thirds of the show, seems as though it'll be dreadfully unfunny and incoherent. Wilmore has an idyllic inspiration for the show's panels, telling NPR, "I look at it as, 'Who do I want in my barbershop, talking shit with?' " But there isn't a moderator keenly aware of entertainability at a barbershop. In the inaugural episode, Wilmore rarely lent each of his guests enough time to complete a thought, let alone two sentences, and you could see the four panelists struggle to say anything substantive that wouldn't also earn them hate-tweets in the morning.
In theory, bringing together individuals from disparate fields like politics, music, comedy, and whatever MTV is these days is a fine idea to breed cross-sectional thought. But last night's panel on the state of black protest merely ended up a dull muddle, with Booker earning applause for nice-sounding but frustratingly vague talking points like "We've got to get into a conversation [about tensions between police and black communities], leading with love" and Treasury cracking a terrible joke about how even a hunger-striking Gandhi couldn't resist a 99-cent McBurger.
Unfortunately, the panel format is likely to stay, as is the slightly better "Keep It 100" sub-segment, in which Wilmore asks his guests to "keep it 100 percent real" on various topics. The only notable exchange during the panel was the host asking Booker whether he wants to be president, to which the newly minted junior senator said no. Wilmore then threw a handful of teabags at Booker for his "weak tea" answer, which was a fun sight gag, but also confirmed my suspicion that any panelist who's successful enough to make it on The Nightly Show is probably too savvy to say anything truly controversial on it.
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Hopefully, Wilmore will show more courage than his guests. His second episode will tackle the Cosby allegations — a topic that, no matter what he says, will risk alienating viewers. But that's exactly what makes The Nightly Show such a promising debut, despite the first episode's reliance on jibber-jabber. Even when he's letting others do the talking, it's clear Wilmore's got a lot to say.
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.