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Opinion

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj: More of the Same or Changing the Game?

It is an exceptional time to be doing political satire on American television. Reality feels stranger than fiction in what frequently resembles some warped alternate timeline. The news cycle brims with material almost every single day. Often jokes really do write themselves. There is one catch, though, and a major one at that: the field is more crowded than a Californian gold mine in the 1850s. With seasoned veterans of political comedy like Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee; political hosts in the late-night time slot like Jimmy Kimmel; and fresh, outside voices like Trevor Noah all looking to get in on the act, the odds of success and longevity may seem especially dim for yet another show that wants to talk about what’s going on while making viewers laugh at the same time. But could Hasan Minhaj be up to the task?

Fresh off a four-year stint as a correspondent for The Daily Show, a widely-acclaimed performance in the 2017 White House Correspondents Dinner, and a wildly successful run with his Peabody Award-winning stand-up special “Homecoming King,” Minhaj is now the creator and host of his own weekly comedy series, “Patriot Act.” In the host’s seat for the first time, Minhaj makes clear his intentions to add a personal touch to the political talk-show format. Bear in mind that this “seat” is entirely figurative—sitting at a desk is one of the conventions of the genre that Minhaj opts out of, alongside the formal attire and the occasional introductory monologue. Each episode typically centers around the discussion of one major story that Minhaj presents with the aid of well-worked digital graphics. Minhaj’s entire stage provides sources and statistics, adds a strong visual flair to the his comedic routine, and creates a distinctly futuristic atmosphere. If any comedy series is ever going to regularly feature holograms as more than just a gimmick, this has to be the one.

It would not be fair to focus on the eye-catching visuals, however, as they are far from the show’s only distinctive quality. Perhaps more so than any other host, Hasan Minhaj wears his heart on his sleeve, continuing to hone the dynamic and uniquely personal style of delivery that has earned him many accolades during his rapid ascent. His identity as both an Indian American and a Muslim makes him a first in the long history of American talk shows. Colored by personal experience, his commentary on hot-button issues like immigration and affirmative action feels fresh and authentic even when it rehashes traditional arguments. The diverse makeup of his studio audience, which he acknowledges humorously in one episode with the words, “Oh my god, there are so many brown people here! It feels like my cousin’s wedding,” reflects his strong appeal to a growing portion of Americans who crave representation in the mainstream culture. His insights as a first-generation immigrant and Indian American are set to become even more relevant as the major sources of immigration to the United States shift toward Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

Minhaj’s faith also figures greatly into the perspective he presents throughout the series. In one segment, he recalls how seeing the audience at the 2016 Democratic National Convention cheer for Bill Clinton’s tone-deaf remarks urging America’s Muslims to “help us find terrorists” inspired him to start working on the show two years ago. “I hate to tell you this Bill, but I don’t know any terrorists,” he says in the behind-the-scenes segment “Deep Cuts”, railing against a view of people of his faith solely through the prism of the War on Terror.

The episode “Saudi Arabia,” aired shortly after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, has Minhaj providing an incisive analysis of the unsavory realities that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent charm offensive sought to distract from. He highlights continued human rights violations inside the Kingdom and the Saudis’ central role in causing and prolonging the massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and Netflix recently made headlines by pulling the episode from air in Saudi Arabia after complaints by the country’s government. But in a classic instance of the “Streisand effect,” the censorship only added to the show’s popularity. Minhaj doubled down on his message and used the spotlight to encourage donations for Yemen. It is worth noting that there is more at stake for Minhaj than for any non-Muslim commentator who draws the ire of the Saudi government: though he has previously been on non-mandatory pilgrimages (umrah), he will likely not be able to safely visit the holy cities Mecca and Medina again and perform the mandatory pilgrimage of hajj. This makes his impassioned rebuke of the autocratic regime all the more poignant and compounds the gravity of his plea that America reexamine its relationship with the country. More importantly, the episode and the ensuing controversy show that voices like Minhaj’s need to be heard—and not just to bring attention to the overlooked experiences of Muslim Americans or combat rising anti-Muslim rhetoric. Standing in stark contrast to false-reformers like Prince bin Salman, a young, charismatic and earnestly progressive cultural figure like Minhaj can inspire a new generation of Muslim audiences worldwide and help define what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century.  

But regardless of the unique strengths of its host, “Patriot Act” still faces significant challenges when it comes to attracting new viewers in a saturated domestic market. Minhaj, for one, is well aware of the comparisons to be drawn with John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,”—both series are centered around investigative reporting—and jokingly says that Oliver’s show often ends up covering the same material, but better. He even concedes in the episode “Supreme”: “We all know what happens when you flood the market. Kind of like political comedy shows. ‘They’re all the same. Do we need another one?’ But I’m the brown one, OK? That’s why you have to watch.”

Fortunately, despite Minhaj’s bout of self-deprecation, that particular episode, dealing with the curious rise of the famed streetwear brand and the implications of “hype”-based marketing, is perhaps the show at its most distinct. While it should by no means avoid pressing subjects like foreign policy or climate change that dominate the mainstream discourse, Minhaj’s more frequent discussion of wide-reaching but ignored cultural phenomena like Supreme can provide a niche that it is well-positioned to serve.

From the beginning, expectations have been high for “Patriot Act.” Despite the failure of some of its previous forays into the world of late-night, like The Break With Michelle Wolf and The Joel McHale Show, Netflix invested heavily in the project, ordering a whopping thirty-two episodes from the outset. The seven that have aired thus far make it clear this trust was not misplaced. Taken on their own, they are thoroughly entertaining and on point. Even if they do not deviate radically from convention, they still contain flashes of the host’s brilliance and glimpses of what the show may yet become. And for those who have seen all that the series’ first installment has to offer, it is hard not to root for Hasan Minhaj.