The asterisk three words into the title of this Full Frontal With Samantha Bee special sets the tone: “The Great American* Puerto Rico (*It’s Complicated).” It is complicated, and Samantha Bee and her team go into a potential landmine of cultural misunderstandings with their eyes fully open. At its best, Bee and her writers capture Full Frontal’s feminist spirit and call to arms, creating a sort of comedy-documentary that maybe needs a little sharpening, but also puts some new boundaries on late-night political and social comedy.
Late-night comedy, particularly the offspring of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, has become an increasingly long-form game. Where Jon Stewart spent the Bush and Obama years wielding sharp political satire at a quick clip, his professional offspring have been slowly weaponizing it. John Oliver and Samantha Bee, who were both long-time Daily Show correspondents, mix activism into longer pieces—in Oliver’s case, they sometimes take the bulk of his 30-minute time slot—that often involve the sort of investigative research formerly limited to big city newspapers. Oliver’s show often ends with showy but pointed gestures, like founding Our Lady Of Perpetual Exemption, a tax-exempt “church.” Bee has traveled to Jordan to interview Syrian refugees and to Russia to interview professional internet trolls, territories previously trodden mainly by news magazine shows like Dateline or Diane Sawyer specials.
With “Great American Puerto Rico,” Samantha Bee and company go even longer, taking a stab at a sort of comedy-documentary. In just one hour, the show takes upon itself to convey the breadth of post-hurricane neglect enabled by the United States, as well as the work Puerto Ricans are doing to rebuild their country in the wake of Hurricane Maria’s decimation. It would be a lot of work to ask of even a self-serious NatGeo effort, but Full Frontal gets most of the way there, finding space between between disaster porn and the spirit of resilience, carefully talking about the shameful neglect of the U.S. while showing the hard work of Puerto Ricans to restore the power grid, have laundry parties where people can do their laundry on buses, and even make comedy. In the first half of the episode, Bee learns about the power grid and solar panels; Ashley Nicole Black interviews Puerto Ricans about the FEMA response (there wasn’t one); Allana Harkin talks to a group called Taller Salud, which is providing aid and food as well as sexual education for women; Amy Hoggart plants trees with a group who’s attempting to shore up PR’s wetlands; Mike Rubens finds a sketch comedy group that finds humor in the midst of blackouts.
There is only so much, Bee herself says, that “a shrill white woman” can do, and calls plenty of attention late in the episode to the damage that wealthy capitalists can do by moving to PR to... not pay taxes. And Puerto Rico has suffered enough: Decimated by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico requested $94 billion in federal aid, a plea that was met with the president of the United States tossing out rolls of paper towels (and, eventually, a fraction of the requested aid). Kudos to Bee for using upbeat interviews to reveal some deep scars, facing facts but not going full-on disaster porn.
Full Frontal’s pointed but self-deprecating tone is surprisingly effective in this longer format, even if it sometimes wears thin, with Bee and the writers calling themselves out repeatedly for what they cannot do. When Bee provides a barber with enough solar power to re-open his shop, she pats herself on the back while saying, “only about ten thousand more to go.” She attempts to entertain a crowd, who are bored until she brings out Olga Tañon, a Puerto Rican singer. It’s also an effective reminder that a bunch of mainland Americans can’t come in and just fix everything (though FEMA aid would certainly help). As Bee says at the top, there’s a lot to cover in this episode.
- It’s hard to know what to make of the call to action to get your T-shirts made in Puerto Rico. Maybe it won’t make a huge difference, but maybe it also meets slacktivists where we are? When Samantha Bee talked to The A.V. Club this week, she said it was “experimental for sure, but maybe had more legs—something that would give back to the economy in a more long-term way.”
- Hey, it’s the motel complex and Orange World from The Florida Project!
- The David Duchovny cameo was fun, but I didn’t find Fox Mulder’s speed-mumbling the best way to talk about how terrible FEMA is. Perhaps still worth it for the final shot of him wrapped up in conspiracy yarn.
- Good lord but that tax attorney was openly gleeful about the black magic of rich people and capitalism.