How ‘The Nightly Show’ Found Its Voice in Its Baltimore Coverage

larrywilmore-baltimoreI’ve been keeping up with The Nightly Show since its premiere, a handful of episodes here and there excepted, and it’s going as well as anyone could reasonably expect from a new nightly talk show. At first, like all series that fall under The Daily Show’s umbrella, it drew comparisons (sometimes unfavorably) to how Jon Stewart goes about things on his show. But Larry Wilmore and his team quickly established the series’ own identity, assembling a panel show based (usually) around a single topic that’s (usually) complex and controversial. Wilmore, a comedy veteran, makes a natural host, the sort of guy you love to welcome into your house every night, and he’s put together a promising array of featured talent. (I’m a particular fan of Mike Yard, who’s proven himself to be a versatile contributor, great at deadpan one-liners and game to play goofy sketch characters.) In short, even as it’s finding its legs, the core of The Nightly Show is strong.

But when the death of Freddie Gray triggered mass protests and riots in Baltimore, The Nightly Show sprang into action, delivering quite possibly its best run of episodes to date. It’s not that there hadn’t been great episodes of The Nightly Show before, but up until now, the show felt more like it was still in the process of discovering what worked and what didn’t. With Wilmore’s Baltimore coverage, it felt like everyone involved landed on exactly what the show was trying to be all along.

Now, The Nightly Show’s Baltimore-centric episodes weren’t designed as major statements — they’re just typical episodes that aired as per usual — but it subtly feels more and more like a watershed moment for the nascent show, akin to The Daily Show’s “Indecision 2000” election coverage or Stephen Colbert’s 2008 presidential campaign for The Colbert Report. It’s not on the same scale as either of those, and there will surely be bigger triumphs for Wilmore in the future, but this is the first moment that found the series perfectly calibrated, pointing to a formula that works for the show’s voice, everything it might accomplish later on, and how it might go about doing that.

The Nightly Show devoted most of last week to Baltimore, using new developments in the story as launching pads into different layers of the issue: the underlying causes of the riots, the peacekeeping efforts of the community and the racist subtext that marred some of the media coverage. As the sole black voice in late night, Wilmore can dive right into the din, tearing into these topics in ways that other shows might skirt around a bit more cautiously. As fine as The Daily Show’s coverage of the same events was, Stewart is still white and knows he can only approach the subject matter as an outsider. That distance isn’t there with Wilmore, and it’s bracing to see him attack Baltimore police brutality head-on, from a more personal perspective. It’s hard to imagine many other hosts, for instance, flatly declaring “[the police] tortured [Freddie Gray],” or landing an interview with members of the Crips and Bloods to discuss their truce and efforts to maintain peace during the protests.

Many protesters decried the media coverage of the events in Baltimore, accusing the cable news channels of painting with broad strokes, casting the protestors in a bad light and focusing on shots of the riot’s destruction rather than a more empathetic, evenhanded view of the events that led to the protests in the first place. In this respect, The Nightly Show helps to act as a corrective. So while, in practice, Wilmore’s interview with the gang members couldn’t be more unassuming — it’s just a group of guys hanging out at a diner — it feels audacious and refreshing, with Wilmore having an insightful, fascinating discussion with a handful of people that almost any major news channel wouldn’t bother with.

Indeed, the show has the unique trait among its peers of gearing its guests toward its own topics rather than booking someone who would reroute the episode to promote something of their own. True, this doesn’t always work out: the series’ biggest issue so far stems from its panel format, how the strength of any given episode tends to fall on the strength of its panel. Sometimes you get a nice blend of activists and comedians, who discuss and debate, laying out evidence you hadn’t considered, whereas sometimes you get Lee Daniels and Don Cheadle joking around about traveling to Mars for some reason. The Baltimore coverage, though, kept on the right side of that divide, gathering panelists who had personal investment in the situation or something to say, making sure to keep things funny and loose even as they make a point.

It’s all in keeping with The Nightly Show’s mission to bring attention to issues facing marginalized groups. (Remember, its working title, The Minority Report, wasn’t just a nod to Spielberg and Tom Cruise.) Race, gender, class, disability — these are knotty, complex issues that can’t be thoroughly examined in a single show, let alone an eight-minute panel segment, even when you’re honing in on a specific detail.

So possibly the most promising aspect to Wilmore’s Baltimore episodes is that he stuck with the story for multiple days, taking care to unpack some parts that were glossed over elsewhere, whether it be to debate the merits of violent protest or newscasters’ constant use of the word “thug.” If there’s a lesson The Nightly Show should take away from this, and I think it will, it’s that the show should start approaching a mess of other stories and topics in the same way, since simply flipping from one issue to another from day to day can leave the nagging impression of having only scratched the surface.

Take, for instance, the one non-Baltimore episode of The Nightly Show last week, which discussed Bruce Jenner’s coming out as a transgender woman. Wilmore spent the show insisting he had little knowledge of the specifics of the trans community or gender transition (or at least feigned ignorance in order to assist audience members not in the know). And while this did allow for trans comedian Ian Harvie to go over the basics of terminology and pronoun use, possibly enlightening some viewers, it also allowed for little else. With so much to discuss in regards to the transgender community getting more mainstream recognition, it’s a shame the show ended just as it started getting into it. Time constraints are a killer, but if you are going to take on issues this large, personal and important, it makes plain sense to devote more of your week over to them. (Though the format is fairly different, the whole “taking some time out for a single issue” thing, for example, has worked wonders for John Oliver and Last Week Tonight.)

Certainly, Wilmore can’t take this sort of approach all the time. Multiple stories can crop up during the week, forcing the show to choose one over another, and not all subjects necessarily need this sort of focus or treatment. (Plus, it’s not like after three or four days of coverage, Wilmore would dust his hands off and go, “Well, that whole transphobia thing is solved!” and move on.) But if the idea for the series is to give a platform to the sorts of stories and people whose voices aren’t heard in mainstream venues, then you have to give them time to speak. Last week’s Baltimore episodes did just that, and weaving together interviews, news satire and panel discussion all based around the same topic, all from the mouths of people who have something to say looks good on the show and makes it seem that much more vital and necessary.

The Nightly Show’s fine-tuned itself quite a bit since its premiere, playing with types of segments and panelist games and finding the right jokes-to-info ratio, altering the format slightly from episode to episode. (In fact, maybe the one thing that hasn’t changed is Wilmore giggling every time the “Keep It 100” musical cue plays.) Yet the success of Wilmore’s Baltimore coverage suggests that the series didn’t need a new desk or fewer panelists to find itself, but a sense of purpose and a mission worth committing to. This is a version of the show that feels far more fully-realized, and it’s the sort of thing that will bring in a bigger audience and open more eyes. Hopefully, going forward, The Nightly Show realizes that too.

Chris Kopcow is a comedy boy and pop culture writer. He links to his Twitter because he craves validation from strangers.

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