'Full Frontal With Samantha Bee': TV Review

Courtesy of TBS
'Full Frontal with Samantha Bee'
It's a Bee-plus debut.
2/8/2016

The longtime 'Daily Show' correspondent makes an assured debut with her own TBS show.

Samantha Bee has been waiting her turn patiently.

From 2003 through last spring, Bee served as one of the most reliable correspondents on The Daily Show, waiting as one colleague after another, some with more seniority and some freshly arrived, went off to host their own late-night shows. Stephen Colbert. Jon Oliver. Larry Wilmore. Stephen Colbert on a different network. Trevor Noah.

Along the way, reporters asked over and over and over again why there were no women in late night and Bee was pointed at over and over and over as a woman waiting her turn patiently.

On Monday, TBS premiered Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, and the host with the seemingly boundless patience appeared to be in a rush to make her new show required viewing.

Actually airing at 10:30, at the end of primetime rather than officially in late night, Full Frontal launched with a tight half-hour, hitting fast with an intro, three segments and credits. Nothing felt bloated. Everything had a specific perspective that set it apart from the half-dozen guys whose shows followed Bee's lead on Monday, all sure to delve into similar election season name-calling and naval-gazing.

Bee has spent months answering questions about the dearth of women getting this opportunity, and the pre-credit sequence found her staring down faux reporters lobbing not-so-faux queries like "What's it like being a woman in late night?" and "Is it hard breaking into the boys' club?" and "How can I watch your show as a man?" and "What's it like as a female woman?"

Ultimately, as was so often the case on The Daily Show, it's great to add Bee to a landscape starved for voices that don't sound like they're emerging from different houses on fraternity row, but what cuts through the clutter is intelligence and humor. We've only just passed the Iowa Caucuses, but there's daunting sense that every possible joke had been made about Clinton's lack of authenticity, Sanders' avuncular crotchetiness, Rubio's robotic juvenility, Cruz's Canadian smarminess and Trump's repugnant trumpiness, but Bee, backed by executive producers Jo Miller and Miles Kahn, came out and laid down 10 minutes of blistering political takes that were originally expressed if not "new." From "Hermione Clinton" to "Sentient caps-lock button Donald Trump" to announcing "I dislike Ted Cruz as much as the next everyone," Bee was adding to an already teetering outrage heap, but she was adding gold. Throw in a joke about the introduction-confused Republicans leaving an empty podium for Elijah at their recent debate and a riff on Clinton's ambitious demonic possession (echoing an earlier witchcraft bit) and Bee was hitting targets on both sides of the aisle and hitting hard.

There was enough meat in Bee's monologue that her middle segment, "Elected Paperweight of the Month," inevitably felt flimsy, tearing into Kansas State Senator Mitch Holmes with well-deserved charges of sexism and ignorance, but then filling things out with easy chiding of a very minor politician's very minor wispy facial hair. Sure, Holmes earned the three or four minutes of pillorying, but was he worth it? After 10 minutes of punching up, it was probably satisfying to punch down.

There was also some punching down on display in "Jeb?" a reported segment dubbed "Ein Film Für Full Frontal" and aspiring for a Werner Herzog-esque glimpse into the abyss that is Jeb Bush. The listless, perpetually bemused, applause-starved scion of a much-maligned political dynasty has been facing potshots for months, but Full Frontal balanced familiar jibes with telling field interviews from the campaign trail in New Hampshire. At the Television Critics Association's press tour last month, Bee brought a report on VA hospitals struggling to handle female veterans, a piece that felt simultaneously hilarious but also important. Even with its Germanic shadings, "Jeb?" perhaps lacked a little gravity, but it also expressed the show's desire to avoid easy categorization as a topical comedy show for "female women."

You might not have been able to tell from TBS' promotion, but Full Frontal will be a weekly show, echoing the Jon Oliver approach, rather than the four or five nights a week some other hosts have to grind. The extra writing and preparation time has allowed Oliver to do in-depth analysis of often obscure topics and to launch the occasional quixotic crusade or organize the occasional hard-to-get interview. While Bee made a plea to Cher to come by the show, it isn't clear if interviews are on her agenda, but the opportunity to do full comedy-journalism features like "Jeb?" and hopefully better than "Jeb?" obviously is.

There have been so many late-night changes in the past six months. Seth Meyers went back behind the desk and gained new relevance. Noah has stepped out from behind the desk and found new energy. Wilmore is still trying to find his rhythms, and Colbert is still trying to figure out what it means to be himself. And, off since November, Oliver's Last Week Tonight is just days away from returning for its third season.

The terrain is still forming, but there's a clear place for Full Frontal after this assured, effective debut.

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