Samantha Bee's The Great American* Puerto Rico is successful activism, less successful comedy
I hesitate to even write the phrase “Activist Comedy.”
The second word is obviously subjective, because not all comedy is funny, but the first word can sound even more vague, loaded with subtext that threatens to defeat any actual context. So “Activist Comedy” sounds like something people can only loudly dislike for stupid reasons or proudly support for emptily symbolic reasons.
But I’m not sure how else to explain something like The Great American* Puerto Rico, an intriguing hourlong special made by Samantha Bee and the Full Frontal crew. It’s an impressive tour through the Caribbean Island, still recovering from Hurricane Maria half a year after the media cycle moved on. It is sometimes funny and sometimes unfunny, but it is a consistently profound attempt to focus the media cycle—and politicians, and voters—onto the problems facing Puerto Rico.
“How did we f— up so badly?” the host asks early in the special. It’s a complicated question, with several answers rooted in history, money, corruption, and the possibility that certain dominant personalities in the government have no idea what Puerto Rico is. One segment that explains the history of Puerto Rico and its confusing status within the United States. (The asterisk in the title is because Puerto Rico’s history, is, to put it mildly, complicated. The island is a Commonwealth, which means that Puerto Ricans are American citizens who don’t get to vote in American elections, which is obviously ridiculous.) Bee’s covering a lot of ground here, talking to local politicians, activists, barbers, people on the street. Trump and FEMA are mentioned, but they are as distant here as they actually are for many Puerto Rican citizens.
Although the special tries to explain the administration’s embarrassingly gradual reaction to the hurricane’s devastation, it also cleverly tracks the unexpected ways that Puerto Rico is changing. Bee flies to Florida, where has seen an influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing a busted power grid and the lack of running water. In one splitscreen, she captures the overlapping conversations about Puerto Rico’s future: Should it be a state, an independent nation, something else? The show also visits an extremely Mr. Robot-y investment summit, where she explores how Puerto Rico is becoming a tax shelter for millionaires. (God help the Puerto Ricans, first came the hurricanes, then came the Blockchainers.)
It’s an assault of information, much of it fascinating. One of the people interviewed is Tania Rosario Mendez, the executive director of Taller Salud, a “nonprofit NGO female-led feminist organization” which is attempting to provide supplies like food and shelter to areas not much helped by FEMA. When you least expect it, David Duchovny suddenly appears, vaguely in character as Fox Mulder and looking vastly less bored than he did this year on The X-Files, trying to come up with a conspiracy theory to explain why so many Puerto Ricans still don’t have power. The hour even ends on a note of capitalist advocacy, with Bee producing Full Frontal T-shirts in Puerto Rico (currently for sale!)
Full Frontal‘s been around for a little over two years. Bee clearly has ambitions for expansion, and I appreciate the intentions to produce something above and beyond the news cycle. The current administration often feels too perfect for late night comedy: If you’re low on jokes in the morning, you can count on the White House suffering a scandal by noon.
The Great American* Puerto Rico aims for something more expansive. It’s held back, I think, by a weirdly broad tone, and some undercooked sketches. The special opens with Bee and her correspondents “arriving” in Puerto Rico, as if they just swam there, okay. There’s a “Despacito” joke, which I guess was mandatory but still isn’t funny. There’s a long jokey montage of Bee working with a T-shirt designer on making a perfect T-shirt, and a long jokey montage where Bee tries to round up all her correspondents, and a scene where she sings “Nobody Does It Better,” oddly prefabricated beats that feel DOA compared to the roving curiosity of the interview segments. The episode ends on a Flashdance joke, and seriously, this and the Deadpool poster, what’s with the Flashdance jokes suddenly? Did everyone get the same subscription to Played Out Pop Culture References Weekly? Is there a Flashdance joke in Ready Player One?
There’s blunt honesty in how Bee presents the plight of the Puerto Ricans. She keeps on situating the island’s story within a larger national framework, referring to how it’s sustained “the longest blackout in US history” after suffering “the worst natural disaster in American history.”
Strong words, but some elements of The Great American* Puerto Rico feel too much like one of those BuzzFeed GIF explainers that simplifies a complex topic past the point of helpfulness. The production visits a local comedy troupe, a hipster bar, and two different barbers. You appreciate the intentions: We’ve gone beyond the politicians to speak to the people! But this never doesn’t feel like a specific sop to some notion of Full Frontal‘s demographic, who presumably have their own comedy troupes that perform at hipster bars in the back room behind a barbershop.
The special ends on an odd note of optimism. Bee says of Puerto Rico: “It’s got a long way to go, but it’ll get there.” This is a lovely thought, at odds with the general chaos the special maps out. I sure didn’t feel optimistic, so I donated to Taller Salud. Whether The Great American* Puerto Rico was good activism, so-so comedy, or unpaid advertising for nonprofit groups, it sure worked on me. I hope Puerto Rico gets “there,” and good luck with the Blockchainers.