Talk about big shoes to fill. Not only does The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore have to follow the satirical powerhouse that is The Daily Show, it also has to compete with the brilliantly sharp legacy of The Colbert Report. Wilmore does his best in the first episode, showing surprising poise and cohesiveness for a brand new show. Each episode, like Politically Correct before it, will live and die on its panel, which comprises two of the three segments. Luckily, Wilmore proves a smart and capable host in his auspicious debut.
Wilmore sits, somewhat oddly and intimidatingly, at the head of a long glossy table. His monologue is more long-form stand-up than quick zingers, and he uses the same sharply sarcastic tone he used as a Daily Show corespondent. In fact, as the name of the show implies, The Nightly Show is much more of a sequel to The Daily Show than Colbert ever was. Righteous indignation reigns, a carryover from Jon Stewart’s lead-in, and Wilmore seems to be playing a somewhat more sardonic version of himself, again a la Stewart.
The Nightly Show is also undoubtedly a black show. Whether that persists remains to be seen, but Wilmore spends the entire first episode talking about black issues (the show was originally called The Minority Report). It is instantly refreshing to hear a different type of voice on late-night television. Wilmore seems to play it somewhat safe, launching only a few real barbs (“It won’t just be black people saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’” he quips regarding climate change.) If the writers and producers let Wilmore off the leash, we could be in for a new cultural voice in America.
The majority of the show centers around the panel also like Politically Incorrect. For the first episode comedian Bill Burr, Senator Cory Booker, musician Talib Kweli, and local correspondent Shenaz Treasury gather around the table for a civil discussion on race-related issues. Ferguson, the subsequent protests, and views on the police were prime for discussion, but it often feels as if everyone is simply stating their talking points. There isn’t much real discussion here. Much of that comes from Wilmore staying out of things as much as possible. These heavy issues require a heavier hand than Wilmore provides in this first episode.
As Wilmore improves as host and moderator, and the bookers get better at finding the right chemistry, The Nightly Show could be a place of intense, authentic discussion. The biggest criticism of the first show is Wilmore’s inability to fluidly steer the conversation. He is more traffic cop than travel guide in this first episode, but his inherent wit and quickness shines through regardless. Once he is firing on all cylinders, the panels could be something special. It’s exciting, in fact, to see just how comfortable Wilmore looks in the host’s chair. It feels as if he has been ready for this post for a while.
It will be interesting to see where the show goes from here. The panel format is sure to see sparks, even tonight’s comment from Bill Burr that the only way to effect change is with “ridiculous acts of violence” snagged a couple gasps from the audience. Correspondent Shenaz Treasury countered, but flatly, and the comment went largely unaddressed. Whether Wilmore will use a stronger rudder to elicit real discussion remains to be seen.
The final segment is Keep It 100, where Wilmore asks a pointed question of each guest and they are supposed to reply honestly (“like truth or dare without the dare”). But Booker gives a flat out “no” when asked if he wants to be president, which almost defeats the purpose of the game right then and there (although Wilmore did throw “weak” tea at him for that answer). Outside of Booker’s statment, this segment makes desperately clear that The Nightly Show is gunning for an authenticity it finds lacking in other television programming. Whether this segment sticks around in its current form is questionable, but the spirit behind it should be commended.
It is impossible to call Wilmore’s debut anything but a triumph. He has impossibly large, monumental shoes to fill and he does his best in his first fitting. The Nightly Show carries on the legacy of The Colbert Report in being both funny and managing a point of view. On late-night television, that’s a potent combination.