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‘Patriot Act’ Hit Different, and Netflix Is Worse Without It

The best new talk show in years deserved the time to build its name

Last year, I wrote a piece arguing that the late-night talk shows have devolved into a tedious exercise in lazy Trump-bashing, and pander to liberal Boomers who prefer the same recycled jokes about the president’s unnatural orange hue, or how his tweets are full of misspellings. 

Today, we learned that Netflix has canceled Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, one of the only variety series that offered something else. Its run lasted 40 episodes, just under two years.

It’s easy to remember a time in television when this would’ve been a “warm-up” period, the necessary span of adjustment for a host and their staff as they found a groove for themselves. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert had a rocky start in 2015; its ratings significantly improved when Trump took office in 2017. Despite low viewership for The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, Comedy Central took the long bet on Jon Stewart’s successor, extending his contract till 2022. 

Minhaj didn’t have this cushion — he worked for Netflix, a notorious killer of talk shows — and what’s more, he didn’t need it. He hit the ground running with a fresh format, youthful vigor and underexposed topics. You didn’t watch him for weak-ass Trump satire; you streamed his elegant, funny deconstructions of the hypebeast economy, the NRA’s influence abroad and the way billionaires use the cover of philanthropy to further enrich themselves and dictate policy. 

He delivered these surprising segments as a millennial son of Indian immigrants and Muslim heritage. When Ellen DeGeneres mispronounced his name on her show, he corrected her.  

By now it’s clear that Netflix doesn’t see much upside to a show that probes and innovates like Patriot Act, nor a voice like Minhaj’s. As the company struggles against downward trends, it has swerved hard into bingeable reality TV like Selling Sunset and Love Is Blind, shows that narcotize viewers instead of challenging them. Patriot Act was incredibly sharp, and its great themes — pervasive corruption and disintegrated government — were bracing as well as controversial: Netflix blocked an episode within Saudia Arabia because officials of the Kingdom objected to Minhaj’s criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in connection to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His analysis of authoritarian nationalism in India and the Philippines drew outcry from supporters of the current regimes in those nations. His penultimate episode was a deep dive into the failure of American electoral system.

You can win a Peabody Award for this stuff — in conferring the prize last year, the judges called Patriot Act the “perfect model” for engaging a young and diverse audience “in contemporary politics and public life” — but a giant brand like Netflix will still consider you a legal headache and unjustifiable expense.  

Fans are lamenting the loss of a major platform where a witty, empathetic man of South Asian descent could wrestle with the paradoxes of the day, energizing people instead of making them feel helpless in the face of tyranny. The way he bounced and zoomed around his stage communicated the idea that we, too, are in motion, even if we’re sitting on the couch. That the world is shifting in wild, unexpected ways, and no, you’re not crazy for noticing. The real pity is that his employers had neither the patience nor vision to keep investing in this very apt approach, so that the show might continue to build its base and pull in additional followers. 

Netflix isn’t built for such a vote of confidence, however smart that wager may be; its executives can only cut creatives loose the minute they decide a product hasn’t dominated the landscape as they’d like it to. But you can’t broaden your niche overnight. Patriot Act succeeded in an inhospitable climate, a vibrant color against the dull backdrop of late-night comedy, and this alone tells you it deserved the room to grow and flourish. Instead, some suits junked their best answer to the question of how a talk show can vibe with the streaming experience. Whatever they try after going back to the drawing board, it’s almost guaranteed to fail.

They always see to that.