Television

Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act Is a Last Week Tonight Clone With a Critical Difference

Hasan Minhaj on stage with a chart.
Hasan Minhaj.
Cara Howe/Netflix

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is so reliably outstanding and valuable that its greatest flaw has often been that it only airs once every seven days. A copycat was inevitable, and it’s finally here, hosted by another The Daily Show alum: Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj. The half-hour magazine-style political comedy series, which airs on Netflix, finds Minhaj going deep on a topical issue for about 20 minutes at a time. But Patriot Act diverges from its predecessor in one unmistakable way: It lets Minhaj be Minhaj—i.e., an Indian-American comic whose beliefs and reference points are often influenced by his cultural background and experiences as a brown man in America (also amply demonstrated in the viral Queer Eye crossover that so delighted my colleague Aymann Ismail).

Two episodes debuted on Sunday. In the first, Minhaj dives deep into the Harvard affirmative action case with a pair of questions hanging over the segment: How do Asian Americans measure racial inequality, and how do we want to fight against it? In the second episode, Minhaj discusses Mohammad bin Salman’s many iniquities beyond the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and how Minhaj’s own Muslim faith informs his anger at and disappointment with Saudi Arabia’s ruler. Minhaj isn’t interested in false objectivity—a concept that continues to weaken journalism’s potency in the Trump era—but with the clarity and insight that comes from a specificity of voice and experience. (Minhaj’s father’s reaction to the news that the comic had gotten his own show: “Great, you can finally save up for grad school.”) It probably helps that Patriot Act’s head writer is another Indian-American comedian, co-creator Prashanth Venkataramanujam, who also led the writing team for Minhaj’s excellent 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner act.

The result is bracing, funny, informative, and occasionally, like Last Week Tonight, a little dry. But it’s homework that you wanna do, even if you never forget that it’s ultimately an assignment. I don’t consider that description a knock on the show: Every minute in 2018 that I’m not glued to the news comes with it a metallic tang of guilt, such is the onslaught of urgent information these days. Considering the hefty length of the issue-driven segments, the writers could organize and frame their data so they build to a more compelling argument or conclusion. But Patriot Act thrives on nearly every other account. It boasts a polish and consistency that forever eluded The Break with Michelle Wolf, Netflix’s other (now-canceled) attempt at rallying the #TheResistance.

Best of all, it’s got Minhaj’s aspirational nerd-turned-stand-up relatability on its side. Minhaj stands for the entirety of Patriot Act, and his delivery is almost wildly gesticulatory, giving the series a loose but emphatic energy. In contrast to the antiquated fake-urban backdrop used by Oliver, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert, Minhaj stands against—and on top of—screens that visually accompany the “woke TED Talks” (as the comic refers to his segments) in a way that feels ever-moving yet unobtrusive.

Practically every detail feels contemporary, from the swagger Minhaj casually exudes to a joke about a seemingly whitewashed portrait of former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in a brief segment on “bad” Indian Americans: “He gentrified his face!” Noting that “Trump employs more Indians than any show on television,” Minhaj implicitly breaks down the model-minority myth with real-life examples of Asian-American malefactors like disgraced pharma executive John Kapoor. Rising to the highest ranks of American business is perhaps expected for some Indian Americans. But according to Minhaj, so is complaining about one’s ankle monitor getting in the way of one’s jogging routine: “Isn’t that the most uncle shit ever?”

Minhaj has been a natural performer since his earliest days on The Daily Show, and displayed a knack for emotional storytelling on his spectacular 2017 Netflix special Homecoming King. (His back-to-back projects on the streaming site definitely make the comedian feel like Netflix’s latest talent poach.) Given the unceremonious ends that met Wolf and Chelsea Handler’s shows, Patriot Act still feels like not quite a sure thing, at least as an entity. But as a showcase for a new perspective, it already feels vital.