We’d waited months, debated Twitter fouls and argued over the too-much-too-soon of it all — finally, last week, we got a taste of what a Trevor Noah-led Daily Show would actually be like. The South African comedian had the tall task of replacing Jon Stewart, who over a decade ago turned the politically savvy late-night show into a nightly ritual for many Americans (and more recently, a reliable source for “so-and-so destroys such-and-such” articles on the Internet). The first few nights mostly inspired a lot “he seems unflappable” comments — and then a segment near the end of the week proved what a biracial 31-year-old stand-up from Johannesburg could actually bring to the table.
Noah’s best moment earns him a spot on this week’s list — alongside a divisive HBO series, an ABC sophomore sitcom that found its groove, and a Comedy Central cult favorite completing a season for the ages. And as long as we’re talking about treasured American cultural institutions, Saturday Night Live began its 41st season by jumping directly into the madness of the Presidential race, which was another reassurance that the recent departures of Stewart and David Letterman would not mean the end of bullshit-detection. Fear not.
5. Trevor Noah finds his Daily footing; Seth Meyers gets political on Late Night (Comedy Central/NBC)
On his first three nights behind the TDS desk, Noah’s jokes were solid and his delivery confident; he didn’t stand out from the late-night pack so much as keep a sturdy boat afloat. Then on Thursday night, the host brought in his first killer bit: using Donald Trump’s direct quotes to compare the Republican frontrunner to dictators ranging from Idi Amin to Muammar Gaddafi. These weren’t the kind of stock jokes that anyone could’ve landed. Noah had his own slant, inspired by his spending most of his life on a continent overrun with bad-hair megalomaniacs. By Friday morning, all the usual political and entertainment sites were posting their “here’s the Daily Show Trump takedown you have to see” pieces — which these days is the true measure of late-night success.
Perhaps energized by the prospect of another young competitor, NBC’s still semi-green Late Night host Seth Meyers had his own viral moment last week, when he picked apart the congressional Planned Parenthood hearings via his segment “A Closer Look.” Meyers is no stranger to political commentary: He did plenty of it on Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update,” albeit mostly in the form of one-liners. With this routine, however, Meyers delivered a succession of sharp jabs, letting each sarcastic interjection and each snippet of a condescending male congressman build off of each other. It was a righteous pummeling, and if the Daily Show, Nightly Show, Late Show, Late Night, and Last Week Tonight keep trying to top each other…this is quickly going to become a golden age for bomb-throwing comedy.
4. Fresh Off the Boat puts an old Boyz II Men video to good use (ABC)
Like its network-mate The Goldbergs (and, going back even further, The Wonder Years), this hit ABC sitcom leans heavy on nostalgia, squeezing unexpected comedy out of the recent past — specifically, the 1990s. And though it’s mainly about the differing values and expectations within an Asian-American family, the show’s also drawn from co-producer Eddie Huang’s memories of growing up as a Taiwanese hip-hop fan in lily-white suburban Orlando. That the inspiration for last week’s “Boy II Man,” where the teenaged Eddie (played by Hudson Yang) has his heart broken by an older classmate, and wallows in his misery by listening to the 1993 chart-topper “End of the Road” on infinite repeat.
Meanwhile, Eddie’s mom Jessica (played the magnificent Constance Wu) tries to figure out how her traditionalist “push your kids to be the best” parenting strategy can help a lovesick son. She eventually realizes she has to relate to her boy on a personal level, right around the time that the episode recreates some of the images from the original “End of the Road” video — from the slow-walking down empty streets to the thoughtful poses in backwards-facing chairs. The connection here is clear. There will always be gaps between the generations, and clashes between cultures, but some life-experiences (and tear-jerking ballads) unite us all.
3. Saturday Night Live recaps the summer (NBC)
SNL came back from its summer hiatus with months’ worth of potential material, and just a little over an hour to cover it all — which made for an eventful season premiere. Highlights included: host Miley Cyrus bursting into tears during a surreal love song; a brutal fake commercial for a pill that corrects the presidential delusions of marginal politicians like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee; Pete Davidson comparing Donald Trump to former American Idol contestant Sanjaya (the ultimate “vote for the worst” candidate); and a face-off between the actual Hillary Clinton and Kate McKinnon’s pretend-Hillary, who chastised “herself” for taking so long to come out against the Keystone Pipeline and in favor of gay marriage.
But the episode’s funniest sketch arrived early, when Cyrus sang a tuneful goodbye to all the headline-grabbers from May to August, from the lion-killing dentist to Pizza Rat. Beyond reintroducing the show’s cast, the song was a reminder of how the 24-hour news cycle and social media can churn through topics so quickly that the culture forgets… oh, who are we kidding? The song killed because it at one point Bobby Moynihan played Jared Fogel and Josh Duggar (without changing costumes) and it was a hilariously sick joke. You know that old saying about how you can’t tell the players without a scorecard? If nothing else, when SNL is on, it can clarify who’s who — and who’s worth mocking.
2. Review‘s season two ends with a big splash (Comedy Central)
It may be an episodic series, driven by whatever fictional host Forrest MacNeil is asked to do from week to week. But Review‘s disasters pile up and topple over, leaving permanent marks — and that makes all the difference. Over the course of two seasons, Andy Daly’s weirdly upbeat and damnably self-centered “life critic” has seen his marriage end, suffered bodily harm, and watched his relationship with his father deteriorate. And now the show’s Season Two finale tries to tie together everything that’s happened, via a deep dive into the world of conspiracy theorists. Forced to examine the wreckage he’s caused, Forrest becomes convinced that all his problems are the fault of his producer, Grant (played by the sublime James Urbaniak). He eventually pushes off a tall bridge, plunging them both into a river.
Review has been astutely described as a covert critique of the modern TV antihero. But the brilliant sophomore season also doubles as a satire of stunt-driven “participatory journalism” — that sub-genre of reportage where writers spend a month or a year doing something remarkable, only to turn it into an essay about how what a pain in the ass it all was. Forrest has given negative reviews to getting in shape, granting a wish, having a pillow-fight, and spending an afternoon in a rowboat, all because those experiences went badly for him. And when asked to confront his own idiocy in the finale, he doubles down, refusing to accept responsibility for his failures. This last episode (of the season, and possibly the series; it hasn’t been renewed yet) hilariously skewers the kind of man who arrogantly thinks he’s helping other people understand life, the universe and everything, when he can’t really see past his own broken glasses.
1. The Leftovers starts over, Lone Star-style (HBO)
Its first season only drew a small (but devoted) audience; maybe the average TV viewer wasn’t interested in hanging out morose, angry survivors of an inexplicable supernatural event. Which was a shame, as oft-criticized Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof did an excellent job of translating Tom Perrotta’s elliptical novel by breaking it into hour-long chapters, each neatly structured and perpetually haunting. The second season changes the show’s overall approach, transporting the characters from the Northeast to Texas. But it’s every bit as strange and moving, because it’s still built around its creators’ philosophical bent.
It’s a testament to the assurance of the showrunners (and HBO, for that matter) that they trust fans to follow along with premiere that starts with a prehistoric prologue and then spending the rest of its running time introducing a small town that survived “the departure” with its population intact. Eventually, stars Christopher Eccleston, Justin Theroux, and Carrie Coon do drop by a re-introductory episode that feels like a mash-up of The Tree of Life, Friday Night Lights, and The Twilight Zone. It’s spooky, it’s dramatic, and it’s own quiet way it asks important questions about what we believe in — and why.