It’s hard to distinguish between what Netflix is doing that is completely new and what it is doing that is, in fact, completely old-fashioned. The streaming service would prefer that we think that everything about it is revolutionary, that it’s a great disruptor not only of how we watch TV (binged, with no commercials), when we watch TV (whenever we want) and how we evaluate success (without ratings), but in the kind of TV that it’s making. Because Netflix shows are free from the demands of advertisers, weekly time slots, and Nielsen, its content can be different, better, more adventurous. But that’s one thing about Netflix that just is not true. As Netflix continues to super-size its original programming, its goal seems to be not to make different or better content, so much as to ensure that it has a reasonable facsimile of all the content, every type of television show, so no one ever has to watch anything elsewhere.
Enter The Break with Michelle Wolf, Netflix’s version of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. It’s Netflix’s attempt at the weekly late-night talk show, its availability at any time of day reflecting the fact that so many of us consume those shows in bite-sized nuggets well outside their air time already. The red-haired, helium-voiced Wolf is coming off her triumphantly controversial stint as the host of the White House Correspondents Dinner, in which she mercilessly critiqued the Trump administration and Sarah Huckabee Sanders in particular. Her native interests, as her willingness to host such an event suggest, seem to be political. In the first episode of The Break, she joked “There’s a lot going on in the world right now. Some people would say it’s on fire. And other people would say,” putting on a gruff voice, “’Fuck you, snowflake, America runs on oil.’” She re-dinged Sanders and turned to feminism multiple times, including a climactic bit about the inherent misogyny of expecting women to have children. A riff about the NFL and the national anthem ended with earnestness, not a joke, akin to her straightforward plea on behalf of Flint, Michigan, at the dinner: “Or we could stop killing black people and address that we have centuries worth of racism ingrained in our society.”
Despite all this, The Break is framed as not necessarily a political show—it’s presented as, yes, a break. “I’m not gonna to try to teach you anything, or discuss political policy with you,” Wolf explained, in sparkly high-top sneakers and jeans. “I guess I’m like a cable news show in that way.” It’s true that the politically minded late-night show field is a very crowded—there’s Oliver, Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers—so I can understand Wolf not wanting to elbow her way into this from the start. But if she doesn’t, what is her show? In addition to her political riffs, Wolf did a bit about the royal wedding and the infamous (last week) Publix cake scandal, two stories that, by Sunday, already felt pretty old, like a daily late night show’s leftover meat and potatoes. (In internet time, they‘d been sitting in the back of the fridge for a week.)
The most distinct aspect of the first episode was Wolf’s willingness to be vicious, justly so, as she was at the Correspondents Dinner. In one segment she took on Mario Batali, cackling that “We can make fun of how he looks, because no one is gonna be like, ‘Sexual predator shaming!’” She proceeded to roast his appearance, concluding with “He looks like what a tuba sounds like.” In another segment called “Sports Smash,” which had nothing to do with sports, she wondered “Do women have to support other women?” Absolutely not, she concluded, dissing Huckabee Sanders and new CIA chief Gina Haspel, with which Fox & Friends has already taken issue. She then listed “the five 5 women I’m not supporting right now,” including Camille Cosby, the NRA’s Dana Loesch, and the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park.
Judging the quality of a late-night show on its first episode is a little like judging a newly hatched bird on its ability to fly: Neither are there yet. While Wolf’s show will almost surely change a lot, the relentless sameness of the first episode was, in its way, telling. Wolf began standing up for a monologue full of topical jokes, then moved behind a desk for a few taped segments, and then moved to a couch for an interview with a guest, Seth Meyers writer and performer Amber Ruffin (a promisingly funny, low-key personality). Wolf has a musical sidekick, a DJ. Though she joked about how she and Netflix are not beholden to advertisers, ending with a spirited cursing-out of Geico, the show used fake commercials to facilitate her transitions from standing to desk to couch. These phony ads were some of the funniest bits of the show, but were absolutely existentially ridiculous. Netflix may not need commercials, but the late-night show as re-imagined by Netflix still does.