Punches at campaign rallies, naked appeals to racism and xenophobia, assurances of penile adequacy during presidential debates -- the coarsening of the political process has come to define the 2016 election, (no) thanks to Donald Trump. But liberals aren’t exempt from the spiraling vulgarity. Accusations that a candidate wants to sleep with his daughter are a nasty new low (poor Ivanka), and the overblown comparisons of the real-estate magnate to Adolf “Responsible for the Deaths of 12 Million Actual People” Hitler sound more inane with each iteration.
There’s one pocket of progressive scorn I can’t help but love, though: the recently launched Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, which debuted six weeks ago and has been killing it from the very first episode. (The weekly show airs on TBS, but full episodes are also available through the series’s YouTube channel.)
"Anger" is the buzzword pundits have embraced to explain Trump’s unexpected rise; racial resentment, economic anxiety, loathing for the establishment, and identification with the Republican front-runner’s tactical aggression speak to the widespread wrath about the direction the country’s heading. But what about those of us who happen to like America’s advances forward, as fitful and reversible as they may be? What about those of us angered by how angry the people on the other side seem to be?
During an election season when every other day brings news of Trump’s jaw-dropping antics, Bee’s incredulous exasperation has brought me the catharsis I used to seek from Jon Stewart during the Bush years. In hindsight, Comedy Central seems to have miscalculated by hiring the relatively toothless Trevor Noah to replace Stewart on The Daily Show. Meanwhile, Bee -- who was never approached for Stewart’s chair -- has made Full Frontal essential viewing by being fiercer, funnier, fouler-mouthed, and more female-focused than any of her male late-night peers.
A combination of The Daily Show and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal is most notable for how much Bee has made familiar formats her own. (After 12 years as a supporting player on The Daily Show, she seems to know exactly what she wants to cover and how she wants to cover it.) In the series premiere, a news clip of Hillary Clinton declaring she never thought she’d be running for president is met with Bee’s now-trademark are-you-effin-kidding-me skepticism: “Ohhhh, fuck offffff.” Updates from the election are interspersed with medium-length segments on a variety of issues, both topical and based on Bee’s personal interests.
Last night’s episode was a typical mix of the personal and the more broadly political. Bee assailed GOP obstructionism in the Supreme Court nomination process and profiled finger-waving atheism activist David Silverman’s fight for recognition at CPAC, an annual Republican gathering. "It’s difficult to have a movement without assholes," shrugs the Werner Herzog–esque narrator (a recurring presence in video segments), who acknowledges both the relevance of Silverman’s message and the off-puttingness of his approach.
But the clear highlight was an exposé on the disgraceful negligence regarding rape kits, thousands of which are left untested or destroyed prematurely across the nation. Bee used the segment to take a couple more shots at her favorite targets: already-elected legislators, including Idaho sheriff Craig Rowland, who believes most victims who come forward are liars, and Georgia state senator Renee Unterman, who’s blocking a bill that would mandate the testing of all the rape kits in her state. The horse race/circus/freak show that is the 2016 election is exciting, sure, but Bee regularly reminds us that it’s the people we’ve actually voted into office who we should really be paying attention to.
Bee’s writers give her some of the best takedowns of D.C.’s least wanted: Ted Cruz looks like “a man who seems like he would lecture a starving kitten on personal responsibility” and the post-Scalia Mitch McConnell a “chinless dildo [that] wants a justice who’ll use his gavel to plug up your abortion hole.” Bee delivers these insults with relish and crackerjack timing, and her quick wit in interviews inspires wonder. Perhaps because we haven’t seen a female firebrand this openly indignant since Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women (really, it's been a long time), Bee’s raunchy, acerbic tongue is as refreshing as, well, seeing a woman finally host a late-night comedy show. (Bee’s as aware as anyone of the perils of female likability. After joking that Clinton’s mantra for the election is “Don’t be cunty,” she jests that that’s the note TBS has for her too.) The show’s sex-related title -- seemingly obligatory for most comediennes -- is Full Frontal’s one major misstep thus far.
It’s too reductive to call her Stewart’s real successor, since Bee is proving with her often-surprising story choices how different her concerns are from most viral headlines -- and by extension how often important news gets sidelined for the daily campaign circus. During Stewart’s heyday, viewers couldn’t wait for his take on the day’s events. With Bee, I can’t wait for what she chooses to cover, whether it’s the 5 percent rate of female small-business entrepreneurship, a St. Louis archbishop’s crusade against the Girl Scouts for their pro-LGBT values, or Bee simply telling an anti-choice Texas lawmaker to his face that he doesn’t know the first thing about abortion. Having jettisoned the interview segment, Bee’s voice dominates each episode. Arrows dart out of her lips, flames out of her eyes. It’s a marvel to behold.