In the inaugural monologue for her TBS talk show, Full Frontal host Samantha Bee remarked on the fortuitous timing of the series premiere. Although Bee was referring to finally being able to tear into the 2016 presidential candidates after spending nearly a year in between gigs (she left The Daily Show last March), that sense of relief could also apply to the addition of her show to the late-night repertoire. For we’ve reached a point at which there are multiple “Jimmy”s (and even a James) in hosting capacities, so it seems clear that the scene could use some revision. Bee’s crashing the party with Full Frontal, but it just makes you wonder why she wasn’t already a guest.
The cold open sees Bee fielding the same questions in a fake press conference that have been lobbed at her in real life, including being repeatedly asked how hard it must be to be a woman in late night, which has historically been a (middle-aged) boys’ club. The Full Frontal host admits that there’s a bit of magic involved, but horrifies the reporters when she reveals that her writers’ room is more of a coven. It’s an absurdist bit that ends up serving as more than an icebreaker.
With the press-conference setup, Bee and her team seem to be acknowledging that it would be nearly impossible—not to mention impractical—to discuss the arrival of Full Frontal without a single mention of Bee’s gender. The fact that Bee’s the only female late-night host has been featured prominently in the show’s marketing campaign. It’s by no means the only draw of the show, despite multiple teasers (which include jokes about “sausage parties” and “massive lady balls”) that highlight that aspect. But the gender-centric promos are sending up the many ads that have routinely and blithely touted the latest new host of late night who, with a few notable exceptions, has been suspiciously reminiscent of all of the ones before him. The emphasis on Bee’s gender in the Full Frontal ads simply mirrors the overwhelming maleness of previous late-night announcements.
With that introduction out of the way, Bee charges into the heart of the show, which turns out to be the 2016 presidential election, much to her delayed delight. The campaign-related jokes dominate the half-hour premiere, though Bee doesn’t waste much time on a blowhard like Donald Trump after describing him as a “sentient caps lock” key (which is both hilarious and apt). Instead, she calls out Marco Rubio for his craven attempts at fending off Chris Christie at the latest Republican debate by spinning some wild tale about Hillary Clinton.
It’s familiar but firm ground for Bee, who covered (and mocked) multiple elections during her Daily Show tenure. She unsurprisingly makes quick work of the Republican hopefuls before moving on to the Democratic candidates. The “Bernie Sanders is a curmudgeon” jokes aren’t the most inspired, but the lull doesn’t last as Bee cuts off a video of Hillary Clinton demurring on her Oval Office dreams with an exasperated “Oh, fuck off.” Her response isn’t tempered with a cutaway or shocked laughter from a colleague. Bee’s words just stand, in much the same fashion that the host does throughout the episode.
With no desk to relax (or hide) behind, Bee is responsible for maintaining the pace and energy, and she acquits herself nicely. The position lends itself especially well to her withering delivery of the line “an entire legislative career spent controlling women and celebrating organizations that exclude them” following the introduction of the “Elected Paperweight Of The Month,” Kansas state senator Mitch Holmes. This exposed stance, which contributes half of the title’s double entendre, actually grows less noticeable as the episode rolls towards its conclusion—a documentary parody with a joke of a candidate as its subject.
Bee isn’t featured in the field reporting piece, an area in which she’s always shone, but the bit nonetheless highlights the strength of the weekly format when dealing with the tragicomedy of an election. The segment is a Werner Herzog-like documentary which tracks life on the campaign trail for Jeb(!) Bush, where applause must be requested and supporters are swayed by turtle figurines. A satisfying rejoinder could easily be produced on a nightly show, but the Full Frontal crew had the time to turn a sad-trombone moment into a symphony.
It’s true that we’ve seen this technique used on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and the incisive political commentary has long had a home on The Daily Show, among others. But the Full Frontal approach still feels fresh, perhaps because we’re finally seeing a female host lead the charge, with a female showrunner (Jo Miller) and a diverse team of writers. Besides, it can’t hurt to speak the same language as the locals when you find yourself in a foreign land.