Critic's Notebook: Yes, Larry Wilmore's 'Nightly Show' Will Be Missed

Larry Wilmore Nightly Show - H 2015

Comedy Central on Monday announced that it has canceled The Nightly Show, temporarily replacing the Larry Wilmore-hosted 11:30 p.m. entry with Chris Hardwick's @Midnight, effective Thursday.

The bottom-line reasons given by Comedy Central executives were simple and, unfortunately, impossible to dispute: The Nightly Show, network president Kent Alterman said, hadn't connected with Comedy Central's audience "both in the linear channel and in terms of multi-platform outlets and with shareable content and on social platforms as well."

Technically, that's not even a "both." That's a "few" or an "all." That's saying that The Nightly Show wasn't getting ratings, it wasn't getting online streams and clips from the show weren't going viral. And try as one might, there's no arguing with it. After 20 months and over 250 episodes, The Nightly Show was delivering minuscule live viewership and the show was coming out of a political convention cycle that ought to have been Wilmore's bread and butter.

Instead, Wilmore time period's former occupant, Stephen Colbert, resurrected his Colbert Report character, regained his mojo and sucked up the social media momentum in the room. So The Nightly Show couldn't get a convention bump, just as the series wasn't able to get Emmy attention and just as Wilmore's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner hosting gig didn't inspire tune-in.

That, sadly, is how you get canceled in 2016. It's not a catastrophe or a travesty, but it is a disappointment, because Wilmore and his team were putting on a good show, just as Trevor Noah and his Daily Show team are putting on a good show — and that isn't necessarily enough.

It isn't necessarily enough with Noah and Wilmore battling it out in a competition to be the third and fourth best shows hosted by a former Daily Show With Jon Stewart correspondent, consistently behind Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (both shows able to capitalize on airing weekly and with the looser restrictions of cable). It isn't necessarily enough when Seth Meyers has staked a claim to delivering the tightest nightly political monologue in late night, when James Corden and Jimmy Fallon are monopolizing most of the morning-after virality and when Colbert is perhaps in the midst of a renaissance.

Maybe it should be enough.

Wilmore was a smart, wry, challenging voice prone to bleep-filled frustration delivered with an incredulous smile, and he put that voice to good use in a historical moment that demanded it. As riots and protests moved across the country and pundits attempted to marginalize the Black Lives Matter movement, Wilmore's takes were always carefully worded bits of friendly, sublimated rage that cut through the BS. In recent weeks, he did terrific pieces on more waves of police-on-civilian violence and on the media, The Nightly Show included, forgetting to stick with the Flint water story. And when Bill O'Reilly bent over backward and inserted his head in his own rectum to say that while Michelle Obama was right that the White House had been built by slaves, they were well-fed slaves, Wilmore and his correspondents dined out for several nights on Reilly's mealy corpse.

Essentially, Wilmore was aware that there were things he was going to be able to cover that the other guys might not cover as well and he thrived on that material. But I guess we can't be shocked when it turned out that by giving the audience things they weren't getting elsewhere, Wilmore and company sent audiences elsewhere for the stuff they expected and wanted. The Nightly Show's election coverage peaked with its branded title "The Unblackening," but perhaps more than that of any of the other late-night hosts, Wilmore's reaction to the Donald Trump phenomenon seemed stuck in a "Why is this still happening?" perplexity that never gained the focus or insight that Wilmore usually delivers. If audiences were looking for coverage of the world outside of and around the election, The Nightly Show was coming through, but if all audiences wanted was a rehash of the same faux pas and blunders, Wilmore's heart wasn't always in it.

Like The Daily Show, The Nightly Show settled into a routine of a strong monologue, a couple of good correspondent segments and then a challenged third act. The Daily Show is stuck in the tradition of using the third act for an interview, which is not what Noah does best, and I've settled into watching as far as the first question, which is usually an indicator as to whether he is going to be obsequious or inquisitive. If he's inquisitive, I keep watching, but that's usually only an interview per week and since it's not really a distinguishing factor for the show, I don't feel bad about skipping it.

Unfortunately, the third act of The Nightly Show was meant as a distinguishing factor for the show. In fact, the panel discussion was at one point meant to be the entire show. Instead, it became an ill-conceived discussion with Wilmore at the head of the table, two correspondents on one side and a guest on the other side. Wilmore became a well-dressed, erudite referee or teacher sitting patiently as less informed kids in T-shirts and baseball caps jockeyed for attention. The correspondents were invariably bucking for future screen time, going for yuks at the expense of substance and generally leaving the guest a pointless afterthought.

The show was structured so that there was no benefit at all to comedic generosity, and the panel segments actually became more unbalanced when a guest was of sufficient stature or quickness to dominate. Take, as an example, Salman Rushdie's appearance during one of the conventions last month. The two correspondents either looked awed or the editors decided to make sure they got value out of having booked Salman Rushdie. Some episodes you'd wonder why the guests were around at all and you'd have to go to the website to find out that they had at least done a "Keep It 100" segment or something, but that it had been saved for an online exclusive, in a desperate attempt to stir attention on a secondary platform.

Optics are important in television, and replacing The Nightly Show with @Midnight, even temporarily, is dreadful optics. The Noah/Wilmore block was, as everybody who follows late night knows, the only hour of minority voices in the period, which was why Wilmore initially wanted to call his show The Minority Report — until Fox dragged its heels and insisted on holding onto the title for a primetime adaptation of the Spielberg movie that the network didn't know how to make and that audiences didn't want anyway. Even if it's just for a week or two, replacing Wilmore with Hardwick is an Unblackening of unsightly proportions.

So what's next? Well, Wilmore doesn't need to worry. The Nightly Show kept him first from showrunning ABC's Black-ish and then from actively executive producing HBO's Issa Rae comedy Insecure. Comedy Central will miss Wilmore's perspective in late night more than Wilmore will miss the steady work on Comedy Central. He'll be able to spend a few months visiting other late-night shows and then he can sell three pilots in the spring.

Wilmore's stable of correspondents will be fine as well. They weren't all great, and I think Wilmore sometimes erred in trying too hard to slot his own roving reporters into slots they might have filled on The Daily Show — Mike Yard and Rory Albanese couldn't go to The Daily Show now because they've basically been used as Roy Wood and Jordan Klepper already — but folks like Grace Parra, Franchesca Ramsey and Robin Thede will be funny no matter where they go.

And what of Comedy Central's 11:30 slot? Well, you can be sure that they've already had the conversations with Jessica Williams about whether or not the Daily Show veteran is committed to doing a scripted show or if she could be ready for an 11:30 offering, preferably in time for the election in November. Comedy Central has already endured months of bad press for letting Bee take her excellence elsewhere. Williams isn't leaving the family, but is a scripted show really her best vehicle? I also remain confused by The Daily Show's underuse of Michelle Wolf, who probably isn't ready for her own show, but isn't getting a platform where she is now. Maybe pair Wolf up with a male comic for a two-hander? We'll see.

For now, though, farewell to Larry Wilmore. The cancellation of The Nightly Show isn't an outrage, but it is a disappointment and as a collective unit, the late-night landscape is blander in his absence.