Netflix has proved all conquering when it comes to high drama series such as The Crown and House of Cards. It has swept the board with critically acclaimed movies such as Beasts of No Nation and Okja. It has presented successful stand-up specials from the likes of Chris Rock and, locally, Adel Karam.
One area where it hasn't yet proved able to stand shoulder to shoulder with traditional broadcasters, however, is topical comedy chat shows. These are big news, particularly for American audiences, where the likes of The Daily Show and The Late Show are long-standing staples of the late-night schedules. So far, Netflix's attempts to compete haven't really hit the mark with audiences.
Its first effort, Chelsea with Chelsea Handler, limped through two seasons while generating little buzz before dropping from the schedules in 2017. The Break with Michelle Wolf and The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale both failed to make a second season. My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman did generate plenty of hype, in no small part thanks to opening with Barack Obama's first post-White House interview, but even that seemed to drop off the radar as the season wore on.
There does seem a sense in which Netflix isn’t ideally suited to the chat show format. The platform is ingrained in linear TV’s schedules. When you finish watching the night’s big movie or water-cooler-moment serial, it’s just there. You don’t need to switch over, or consider what to watch next – just sit back and see what Trevor Noah, Jimmy Kimmel or John Oliver have lined up for you tonight. With Netflix, you need to make an active choice to watch. If you’re interested in the guest, you may give it a go. If not, you keep scrolling.
The lack of prescribed time slots on the platform is in some ways both a blessing and a curse. It's great that you can binge the entire new series of Daredevil in a single weekend, but conversely Netflix has no "event TV" card to play. No one is clearing Sunday nights from their schedules for the next three months so they can watch Game of Thrones then discuss it at work on Monday morning. The chat-show format, thanks to its topical nature, requires that kind of regular commitment, because it dates quickly.
Hasan Minhaj has taken some sensible steps to minimise this problem. His Patriot Act show is closer to a topical weekly stand-up show than a Daily Show clone. He has done away with guests – and the traditional desk – altogether, relying on a Last Week Tonight-style monologue format, but in a less formal setting. Rather than picking up on a series of topics from the week's news, he dedicates each episode to a broad topic – affirmative action and the United States' relationship with Saudi Arabia, in the case of the first two episodes, which landed last week. The subjects are current affairs-related, but they're broad enough to still be relevant in a month's time, giving the show a longevity not normally associated with this kind of programming.
The comedian isn't covering any new ground stylistically. He's a former Daily Show contributor and an established stand-up, so we know what we're getting – informative, topical, well-researched, politics-heavy, intelligent comedy. And Minhaj does it very well.
He also offers a refreshingly different perspective to the usual liberal white man's viewpoint that underscores these kind of shows. His "Indian-ness", his Asian identity and his Islamic faith constantly underpin his comedy, and he's not averse to throwing a few punches his own way when needed. His critique of the Asian groups trying to bring an end to positive discrimination at US colleges in episode one is scathing, and he's likely to raise a few eyebrows regionally with episode two, where he asserts that "every time Saudi Arabia does something wrong, Muslims all over the world have to deal with consequences". His character assessment of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman won't be winning any prizes for hagiography in the Kingdom either.
Two episodes in, the signs are good. Whether Minhaj can give Netflix its first weekly "event TV" flagpole on a Sunday night remains to be seen. In all honesty, I doubt it. One of the big appeals of Netflix remains that it doesn't bind you to schedules, but by making his shows topical enough to be relevant, but not so topical that they're entirely irrelevant by Monday evening, Minhaj has neatly sidestepped this quandary.
The show is certainly good enough to be rewarded with decent viewing figures, but it can also successfully exist in isolation as a series of stand-up routines – and those figures probably won't all be achieved from loyal viewers feverishly tuning in as soon as each new episode drops on a Sunday.
The first two episodes of Patriot Act are streaming now on Netflix. New episodes drop every Sunday