The new Showtime comedy series Ziwe puts its title star front and center, even as she's putting her guests under the spotlight of uncomfortable conversations about race. Comedian Ziwe Fumudoh has brought the arch confrontational style that helped her become a social media sensation last summer to a quasi-talk show format that combines interviews, comedy sketches, docu-style comedy segments, and parody music videos all into a series of half-hour episodes, each themed on some aspect of racial justice.
While Ziwe has been making interview subjects feel uncomfortable on the subject of race on the internet for a long time — see her YouTube series Baited with Ziwe — but that got kicked up to another level in 2020 when she moved her interviews to Instagram Live and began talking to often oblivious white internet celebrities like Caroline Calloway and Alison Roman. Ziwe's interviews became viral hits and eventually appointment internet, mostly for her style, a kind of confrontation with a smile, where she gives her less savvy guests just enough space to say something oblivious or tone deaf or secretly revealing about their own white privilege, all while archly pulling faces and encouraging her guests to please, by all means, go on. Like her web shows, Ziwe is both a gotcha show and a parody of a gotcha show. In true millennial comedy fashion, her interviews are an ironic send-up of the boogeyman of "cancel culture" while still affording her guests plenty of opportunities to tell on themselves.
Each episode of Ziwe — judging by the three that were made available to critics for review — will focus on a different theme, including "white women," "beauty standards" and "wealth." The interviews are in some way connected to the theme, although honestly they don't need to be. The sit-down between Ziwe and cultural critic/professional malcontent Fran Lebowitz feels like an epic clash of the titans, even though, in typical Ziwe fashion, the tone of the interview remains thrillingly slippery throughout, with the unstoppable force of Ziwe's questions ("What bothers you more: slow walkers or racism?") meeting the immovable object that is Lebowitz.
The interviews over the course of Ziwe's first three episodes are instructive of the different ways her interviews can play out, depending on the subject. Lebowitz represents the guest who's unfamiliar with Ziwe's comedic persona, which makes for a real thrill ride of an interview as the two size each other up and Lebowitz (who's savvy but also unconcerned with saying the "right" thing) tries to stay ahead of Ziwe's gotcha questions. Episode two's interview subjects are Saturday Night Live's Bowen Yang and Shrill's Patti Harrison, friends and contemporaries of Ziwe's who definitely know the deal and are able to play into the cat-and-mouse game (which makes it even funnier when Ziwe is able to catch them in a racial catch-22 anyway). Episode three's guest is brand new Real Housewife of New York City Eboni K. Williams, who is game for everything Ziwe throws at her and never makes the fatal mistake of trying too hard to make herself look good. More than anything else, Ziwe's interviews shoot down the idea that it's possible for a celebrity to craft a completely correct public persona. But for being so up for Ziwe's verbal obstacle course, Williams comes across incredibly well.
While the interviews are, unsurprisingly, the big highlights of the new Ziwe show, they end at around the halfway mark of each episode, at which point the show turns itself over to sketches, parody music videos, and other segments. Some work better than others. Ziwe hosting a summit of real-life women named Karen, who have different feelings about their first name now being synonymous with white-lady racism, is a highlight, while an interview with a plastic surgeon never really makes the case for itself. Everything non-interview starts to feel like filler programming, to the point where you wonder why the episodes couldn't just double up on guests, or just shrink down to a 15 minutes running time.
It's probably worth it to see if Ziwe can iron these wrinkles out, though, considering what a singular comedic presence Ziwe is and how thrilling her interviews can be. Bonus: Maybe they'll be able to get Fran Lebowitz to return for round two.
Ziwe premieres on Showtime Sunday May 9 at 11:00 PM ET.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.