There was an argument to be made that the now-mononymous comedy star Ziwe was among the best television performers of 2020 — even though her existing outside television was what had made her a star. Ziwe’s Instagram Live series, in which she delivered startlingly direct interviews with internet stars and comedian peers about race, made fascinating use of the platform’s split-screen technology. (An example of Ziwe’s style: After the chef Alison Roman became a figure of controversy for her criticism of Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, Ziwe asked her to name five Asian people.) On the screen’s bottom half, the guest squirmed and dissembled; Ziwe, eyes glinting in triumph as she went in for the kill, was on top. The magic of her performance lay in the degree to which Ziwe shifted her energy — she could go, in a moment, from benevolently trying to work out issues together with her guest to exposing weaknesses in their thinking, and back again.
Her act had a kinetic, unrehearsed energy that both seemed perfectly unified with its format and seemed to demand a promotion. And on her new Showtime series “Ziwe,” the comedian maintains the potency and insight of her act without losing her edge. The early episodes suggest a comic sensibility that arrives on television fully-formed, an insight machine whose ability to fillet the absurdities of the world as she sees them may make her a millennial answer to David Letterman.
To wit: The first episode centers around an interview with late-night standby Fran Lebowitz. (I’ll admit I groaned, a bit, when Lebowitz appeared in the show’s first trailer: A new host this promising booking the most bookable unemployed author in media?) It’s no surprise that Ziwe doesn’t do what most hosts do, which is to sit back and allow Lebowitz to say whatever comes to mind; her questions, indeed, come to seem both winkingly absurd and sharpened to a very fine point. Lebowitz has made a career of elevating petty grievance to existential threat of a way of traditional, old-fashioned life whose particulars she never really explains. The question “What bothers you more, slow walkers or racism?” is as effective a critique of her routine as I’ve ever seen. Lebowitz’s obvious answer — for her, the worse scourge is slow walkers — is placed into a context where it seems small, and done so with a startling directness.
And yet this isn’t just a skewering. As on Instagram, Ziwe allows her guests in on the joke, going on to lightly tease Lebowitz, a self-styled equal-opportunity social critic, as “the Martin Luther King of women writers who are satirical”; an interview in a later episode with Eboni K. Williams, a well-intentioned reality-TV star, sees Ziwe using a similar technique, calling her “the Shirley Chisholm of ‘Real Housewives.’” It’s a lightly ironic way to allow her guests to have a little fun with their own images — both Lebowitz and Williams play along. (And in an episode featuring comedians Patti Harrison and Bowen Yang, Ziwe allows her own pretensions to be skewered a bit.) Moments like these allow a bit of exhalation, which feels at times necessary for a show with a lot on its mind.
But for occasional instances like these, though, every element of “Ziwe” — including its aesthetic, with a Candyland of a bright pink set and Ziwe’s glammed-out costumes — is rooted in an utter earnestness. Back on Instagram, Ziwe’s commitment to the bit was so clear that her guests emerged shell-shocked. The key weapon at her disposal was a sort of shocking intimacy. Now, given a TV budget and a TV scale, Ziwe shows us a creative universe unified around the force of her personality: Radical candor and truth-telling is wrapped up in a knowing and self-conscious glamour. She even reprises a sanded-down version of her Instagram routine, taking part in a split-screen interview with Gloria Steinem in which Ziwe leans radically close to the camera. This time, what we’re seeing when Ziwe’s face takes over the frame is pleasure at meeting someone she seems to deeply respect, rather than the glee of an ambush.
This is not the first time Showtime has allowed multimedia stars the access to build out the show of their dreams: Ziwe herself had previously been a writer on the network’s “Desus & Mero.” And, here, taped bits — like a focus group of real white women named Karen — illuminate new corners of the Ziwe sensibility. In one sketch not featuring Ziwe, Jeremy O. Harris and Sydnee Washington play performers in a commercial for “Floss for Black People,” and Sam Taggart plays a director who insists that they “cut the nuance” — make the ad “more urban, more hip-hop.” It’s a direct (and wittily acted) shot at a certain style of thinking about what Black performers can be or do, and also a declaration of purpose: This is a show in which the real enemy is, indeed, lack of nuance. The pleasure of complication, from ornate sets to linguistic games to a sort of wearily complex appreciation for the ways Fran Lebowitz is equipped to be in on the joke, is what makes “Ziwe” special, and what will make it thrive. It should come surprise that the Floss sketch has an entire second beat in which Ziwe appears with her writer Cole Escola, and flips the premise on its head.
The joy of throwing so much at us — a quicksilver host so able to shift moods, sketches and interviews with quite so much intellect and ambition thrumming throughout, a dreamscape of a set — can add up to a sense of disorientation in which our anchor is the host’s personality. The show creates a sense of closeness with Ziwe by letting us play, for thirty minutes at a time, inside her mind. “Ziwe” is, among other things, an answer to the utterly irony-poisoned TV talk landscape — it’s a show that feels intentional and in earnest. Like the Instagram series that came before it, but at a scale worthy of its host’s grand star persona, it smiles but doesn’t blink.
“Ziwe” airs 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime
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