Let’s start out with this: a comedy special helping to focus national attention on what continues to happen in Puerto Rico very admirable goal. If the current administration has been negligent towards the needs of its people and the daily news apparatus is otherwise occupied with more salacious stories, then there’s always room for a show like “Full Frontal” to step in and help shine some much-needed attention on our fellow Americans.
“The Great American Puerto Rico,” this week’s supersized “Full Frontal” episode, travels to multiple cities around the island, but it starts off on some shaky footing. Five minutes may not seem like a long time, but when it takes that long for the special to actually get to Puerto Rican citizens talking about what’s still happening to them, it’s a sign that maybe some of this special’s priorities are a bit shuffled.
Bringing the whole “Full Frontal” team to Puerto Rico as a unified group was a smart decision. Using all the show’s main correspondents, instead of just dispatching one or two staff members, shows that this is a topic that deserves the series’ entire weight. But even at an hour-long length, serving all of these correspondents and Samantha Bee herself gets in the way of what could make this a really worthwhile endeavor.
The overarching pursuit of some jokey premises distracts from the underlying real stories that are far more compelling. A salient point about environmentalism gets lost in the need for an “Apocalypse Now” framing. The white savior meta-commentary within Bee trying to help out a barbershop with some solar panel installations gets undercut by how much time is spent shoring up Bee’s place in all this. It all leaves little time for a segment on a Puerto Rican political sketch group that “Full Frontal” could easily have built the entire special around. These “Full Frontal” analogues are the most natural way to understanding the prevailing climate in a post-Maria Puerto Rico, yet they get barely a passing mention.
It’s presented as a gag, but the portion of the episode where Bee tries to do the normal show for an audience that either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care is a example of why trying to graft the “Full Frontal” style onto this more in-depth piece doesn’t work. The show has found a really healthy, fruitful balance elsewhere in some of its previous reported pieces, like last June’s segment on drug kits, its ongoing look at the state of untested rape kits and even last year‘s segment where the show managed to find something nice to say about the president.
This push and pull between being informative, being active, and being funny is the real trick of comedy in 2018, particularly in late night. This approach to “The Great American Puerto Rico” shows the jokes aren’t really enough anymore. Showing up to a place in need, and spending a full segment on the beach or throwing together an angelic musical number before the trip even happens isn’t doing anything. Why lead with an anthropomorphized Puerto Rico when the real Puerto Rico is right there to be highlighted? If the goal is to get people informed and motivate audiences to take action and change the perception of what’s happening in Puerto Rico, a large portion of this special seems like good intentions focused in an entirely wrong way.
This is not to say that “The Great American Puerto Rico” should have approached this just like “Last Week Tonight” or “Late Night with Seth Meyers” would have. “Full Frontal” has a specific voice that comes from a very committed and distinct group of writers and creators. But there comes a time when just showing up and being funny is going to feel insufficient. Making one “Despacito” joke in the span of an hour is pushing it. Making three is pulling focus in a way that goes against what the ultimate goal of this was from the start.
And all of this is before we even get to David Duchovny — at best, the 671st person who should be in “The Great American Puerto Rico.” Delivering this FEMA “conspiracy” in character as Mulder makes sense in theory. But to give over time to a celebrity who presumably is about as far from Puerto Rico as the Vancouver lots where they shot Season 11 of “The X-Files,” it’s a sign that this is trying too hard to get cute about what would make this special most effective. Swapping in a TV star for the actual people of Puerto Rico is just not the way that a series aiming for activism should spend its best efforts.
Interviewing a blockchain expert for a lengthy cryptocurrency segment is the show’s attempt to demonstrate how the future of Puerto Rico is a combination of outside financial influence and actions of people within its borders. If those talks are only going to end in the same conclusions about the corrupting, mysterious power of bitcoin forces, it makes the process of bringing everyone to Puerto Rico an even more confusing move. A couple of drone shots and some lovely B-roll of the particularly gorgeous parts of Puerto Rico aren’t going to do much on their own. When some of the main individuals highlighted in “The Great American Puerto Rico” are a real estate entrepreneur and the star of “Californication,” it dilutes the power of conversations around issues like statehood or government spending.
It shouldn’t be the responsibility of comedy shows to provide a civics lesson. The cartoon-based approach to showing history between the US and Puerto Rico works because it’s concise, not because it has the help from some “Schoolhouse Rock”-style visuals. Bee’s interviews with government officials in Puerto Rico have the same correspondent approach that’s worked throughout much of her career: working to uncover new insight rather than use readily available jokes as crutches. The informative parts of those brief chats put that need to be self-aware and self-effacing below actually providing something of use to viewers throughout the rest of the country.
“The Great American Puerto Rico” ends with a call to action that involves…buying T-shirts. Far be it to condemn someone looking to help out people in need through some creative apparel choices, but doing so in a T-shirt with the show’s title seems like the last misguided step in an exercise that’s as much about maintaining the visibility of “Full Frontal” as it is the people of Puerto Rico. When “Full Frontal” is at its peak, harnessing the collective anxiety and anger of the times we live in, it’s produced some of the best TV of the past two years. That this special doesn’t approach those heights is a window into how a still-shifting late night landscape is asking more of the shows in its upper tier.