'The Rundown With Robin Thede': TV Review
BET's new Thursday late-night comedy half-hour is already on its way to making itself essential, thanks to the distinctive voice of Robin Thede.
Late night wasn't always such a high-pressure time slot. You used to choose if you were going to have The Tonight Show or Late Night on as you went to sleep, and then maybe The Daily Show made things complicated by demanding your actual attention and producing pre-bedtime outrage and irritation.
Now, there are a dozen talk and sketch shows airing in time slots 10:30 p.m. or later, and they're some of the best written and most perceptive shows on TV, and the entirely viable question every viewer has to ask is, "Do I really need yet another assortment of one-liners relating to Donald Trump and the lazy journalism of Fox News, with a couple pop-culture references tossed in, no matter how smart that show might be?"
Every week, the answer for what's essential feels like it's changing, and like the very universe itself, that answer is only expanding. There was a rare contraction last fall when Comedy Central canceled The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, which was on its way to "essential" status, if not quite there, but surely was making jokes and booking guests that no other show in the space could make.
Robin Thede, head writer on Nightly Show, has a new series on BET, and while two episodes isn't quite enough for me to declare The Rundown With Robin Thede to be "essential" just yet, it's already settled into its voice, with a completely distinctive set of punchlines, references and comedic targets.
The late-night space remains overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, but Thede is part of a vanguard of hilarious African-American female voices who are forcing themselves into the space because, frankly, people are realizing (behind the curve) that the national conversation is hollow without them — women like Amber Ruffin of Late Night With Seth Meyers and Ashley Nicole Black of Full Frontal With Samantha Bee.
But Thede isn't playing to an NBC 12:30 a.m. audience or a TBS crowd, and The Rundown immediately feels like it's a platform with fewer compromises, and that's only superficially because you can't imagine any other shows using Gucci Mane's wedding sword as a visual reference or "Just like Trick Daddy says, 'CTE love the kids'" as the capper for a run of NFL jokes. And no other host is going to begin an episode by saying she has to get to business because "we've only got 30 minutes together before I go back to rewatching the Black Panther trailer and admiring a black man with swoop bangs."
You can already see Thede making sure she tackles topics that are getting underserved elsewhere in late night, like Jemele Hill's ESPN suspension, or getting out ahead of stories like recurring Halloween blackface embarrassments that the other shows won't get to until next week, if at all. And you can already see Thede's savvy awareness of jokes she can make that Last Week Tonight's John Oliver or even Bee can't approach, like spinning Congresswoman Frederica Wilson's use of the word "Livit" into a Scale of Black Anger chart ahead of "Pisst, Delivert, Angry and Mad." "Jokes Seth Can't Tell" is one of the best recurring Late Night segments, but Thede has no such restrictions.
Don't worry, though; Thede still makes jokes about Donald Trump's orange flesh and forgetting Tiffany's birthday. Just because you're leading a revolution doesn't mean you can't cherish the traditions of the old regime.
The Rundown is still finding its format, and right now all signs point to the show being all Robin Thede, since she has yet to trot out a chummy correspondent or commentator, though she did dance along with Los Angeles rapper Duckwrth in a corner grocery pop-up concert segment in last week's premiere. Both episodes have been introduced by filmed segments and included two blocks of news-mining standup, delivered in front of a genre-standard board of upcoming topics and punny headlines. The Duckwrth performance was the third piece of the premiere, while the second episode closed with a scathing and yet still overlong Handmaid's Tale parody, titled Hairmaid's Tale, that transitioned into a Love & Hip Hop parody that, thankfully, required very little specific knowledge of Love & Hip Hop to be funny.
That, of course, is the most important thing about The Rundown With Robin Thede. It isn't just the only late-night show of its kind hosted by an African-American woman — it's also just funny. The writing is good and Thede's delivery is high-energy, and she's already the most stylish host in the space, not that that's necessarily important, either. Like most of the shows that only do this weekly, as opposed to the nightly warriors, this one faces the challenge of too much current-events craziness and not enough time, and, as with Samantha Bee's show, I'm already itching to get The Rundown more frequently than just every Thursday night.
Airs: Thursdays, 11 p.m. ET/PT (BET)