Jon’s back! Not that he’d want you to get excited about it. In interviews about the launch of his new show on Apple TV+, Stewart has repeatedly tried to adjust people’s expectations of his much-heralded return to TV. Knowing how nostalgically (his word) we look back on his glory days on the Daily Show, he seems keen to imply that this is not what was. This is something new.
He’s certainly going about things differently, hiring 3 female head writers (The Daily Show gained a reputation for being very male-orientated) including one - Brinda Adhikari - who was previously at CBS News rather than a comedy writer. They held open calls for writers, too (meaning applicants didn’t need to have an agent).
The thing is, do we need Jon Stewart? There are now many more shows and more hosts (though still, very few are women or people of colour). Shows such as Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Problem Areas with Wyatt Cynac have taken up the baton for tearing down political leaders and societal issues. Themselves channelling the anger a lot of us feel towards the hypocrisy of government and society. Many of these hosts started on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and countless more have been influenced by him.
So the deck is stacked both heavily in Stewart’s favour and against him. He’s in effect standing in his own shadow. A lot of eyes are on him to see how this show turns out and in the two episodes provided to critics there isn’t a simple answer but it’s certainly going to be interesting to see the show evolve.
The first two episodes provided to critics span the spectrum of successful and not-so-successful, showing a mix of things that work and do not work, starting with episode 1, ‘War’, which on the whole is a success.
Setting the stage for how each episode looks like it will take shape, we start with informal footage of the production offices showing the writers and producers brainstorming ideas for the episode. Then we’re into the opening credits and to the studio where Stewart ‘sets up’ The Problem for that week. This is the most ‘Daily Show’ part of the show - Stewart behind a desk, fiddling with his papers and pen and cutting to news footage. Following this is a panel discussion which forms a sort of ‘first-person context’ view of The Problem before moving on to a final section - a ‘solution’. Or at least trying to identify a solution or why a solution has not been found. All this is broken up slightly with a couple of sketches or more footage from the writers’ room.
The first episode focuses on ‘Burn Pits’ - literal burning pits of waste, body parts, fuel and anything else the armed forces wish to dispose of. Illegal in the US, they are still being used in overseas conflicts because, of course they are. This has resulted in veterans developing countless diseases and health problems due to sleeping and working right next to them. The VA is refusing to acknowledge the connection, or at least saying they need more ‘data’ to show a direct connection. Meanwhile, vets are going bankrupt from medical bills and dying.
In this episode, the structure works well, the panel is stacked with vets and campaigners who are passionate and more importantly, very eloquent on the matter. Stewart himself provides a great intro, seemingly seething behind a smile of anger and contempt. He then curates the panel well, giving us a fascinating debate before moving on to interviewing the secretary of the VA. While it’s a frustrating interview - the guy just won’t fully explain reasonings - Stewart pushes him on it and it’s good to see. While watching it you’re reminded of why people used to ask if he was going to run for office (much to Stewart’s frustration).
In episode two, though, you start to see a slight issue with the first episode. It’s great BECAUSE Stewart is so passionately involved that the episode is so great (he’s campaigned on vet’s behalves for years). It’s gripping and heartbreaking because THROUGH Stewart we become outraged and frustrated with him. Episode 2 feels less personal and lacks that personal anger that makes episode 1 feel so visceral.
Episode 2 is about ‘Freedom’ and again we open with some light banter - something which Stewart was very relaxed doing on The Daily Show and is again here - before moving on to ‘the setup’. We go through a quite long piece about the contradictions of freedoms surrounding COVID, antivaxers and mask-wearing. The problem is we’ve seen this so many times it’s a little tiring. We know of this hypocrisy and if we don’t then this isn’t going to suddenly convince. This bit goes on for a while ending with an overlong game of ‘What’s more Hitler?!’ Which is... fine. But again, nothing new. At this point in episode 1, we were starting to want heads to roll, before we’d even got to the panel. This time around it’s just a bit of shoulder shrug. Nothing new.
Luckily the panel section retains the high standard of the first episode. This time it is made up of people who have gone against increasingly authoritarian governments in The Philippines, Egypt and Venezuela. Sometimes it’s just nice to listen to smart people eloquently talking about an issue and this is one of those times. Again Stewart keeps it flowing and it’s a fascinating discussion.
Overall though, it’s a slightly uneven episode. The banter in the writers’ room is again fun and there’s a spectacular Jenifer Lewis rant, but you could easily just skip to the panel and not miss anything important. It also doesn’t try and home in on a solution or interview anyone else like ‘War’. It’s not like there is an easy solution but it would have been interesting to explore some possible next steps.
The Problem With Podcasts
Ironically, the podcast already seems fully formed. Partly because it doesn’t have a rigid structure to it. Speaking to two of his staff who are also vets, Stewart dives deeper into the burn pit issue and we get a better sense of what being a vet actually FEELS like. The obligation and the way of life. Oh, and it’s very funny. Without an audience, Stewart seems more relaxed and the conversation is fun and engaging. We also talk to more lawmakers and get some other fun segments like ‘Shout out to a boring motherfucker’ about a senator who works hard without recognition. Again, these have a weight of the subject and are also very funny. Interestingly, while the show is fortnightly the podcast is weekly so we will have to see whether week two brings more discussion of burn pits or a completely different subject.
The political and TV landscape has changed so much in the last 6 years that it was always going to be a struggle to find that niche, that way back into it for Stewart. As the first episode and parts of the second show, the way back in may be via advocacy and some activism rather than finding the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of subjects in a way the Oliver and others do so well. It’s in these ways that The Problem works best and seems more focused. It remains to be seen how the show develops as it moves away from subjects that Stewart is not only experienced in but also passionate about. The groundwork, especially in what seems like a very diverse selection of voices in the writers’ room, is there. It may take a little time to find it’s true voice and focus, as all shows like this and comedy itself does, but despite so uneven parts this is a good start.
This review originally appeared on Screen Times.