If nothing else, the premiere of TBS’s Full Frontal With Samantha Bee proves how versatile the Daily Show–styled satirical news-show format can be. Samantha Bee, the fifth former Daily Show correspondent to spin off a solo show, sticks close to the familiar template while adding stylistic flourishes (delivering most of her material standing up or pacing in front of a bank of TV screens, à la the hosts of CNN’s The Situation Room). Like The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, the slightly revamped Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and CBS’s The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, (which plays like Letterman by way of Jon Stewart), Bee’s program is one more “publication” added to an increasingly crowded TV newsstand, but it already feels distinctive enough to merit regular check-ins, if not yet a DVR season pass.
The focus here, as Bee has promised in lead-up interviews, is a more feminist-oriented take on the format, though not enough for Bee to resist impersonating Hillary Clinton growling in a demonic voice while bathed in hellish red light. (Bee balanced this out by ribbing Anderson Cooper for waving Bernie Sanders’s young female support statistics in Clinton’s face.) Her material on abortion rights, to name one subject at the heart of last night’s premiere, had a harder edge than you’d ever see on a satirical newscast fronted by a man. The force of Bee’s attack had less to do with tone or word choice (Oliver gets visibly steamed over anti-choice political and legal maneuvers, too) than the fact that Bee has a biologically vested interest in the outcome of the battles she’s commenting on. Likewise, when Bee took aim at a less-dire target, Kansas senator Mitch Holmes — who tried to revise the dress code for women in his statehouse — the material had a sting that it wouldn’t have had Oliver or Noah or Colbert done a similar bit. “I wouldn’t try to regulate your finger-painted tie or your skeevy facial hair,” Bee said over a photo of Holmes. “And if I get distracted wondering whether that yellow stain around your mouth is whiskers or just the lingering impression of a glory hole, that’s my problem.” As when Noah or Wllmore riff on racism, this stuff is not abstract or theoretical to Bee, and that gives weight and fire to what might otherwise feel like a better-written version of the same old, same old.
Even the same-old bits were good, though. Bee referred to Donald Trump as a “sentient caps-lock button” and said clips of the Democratic presidential candidates all strenuously agreeing with each other gave her “a flashback to the week before my parents were getting a divorce.” A reported political piece narrated by a Werner Herzog imitator failed because neither the narrator’s voice nor the writing were convincingly Herzog-esque, but the mere fact that they’d try something that demographically pointless (Who’s the audience for this bit, film majors? If so, hooray) indicates that Full Frontal is inclined to follow its own weird muse wherever it leads.