Political comedy has dominated TV since the last presidential election. Much of it is terrible (no matter how many Emmys it gets nominated for), but even the stuff that isn’t bad still feels tiresome and unnecessary. There’s just too much of it today, and too much of it is smug, lazy or unoriginal. Also the real-life issues we’re faced with today are so significant and stressful that it’s hard to produce satire about them that doesn’t feel flippant. You have to commit to a strong point-of-view that’s forcefully told, and you have to risk offending the outrageously (disingenuously?) offended right-wing activists who are always ready to pounce on anything they can use to further their culture war. There’s a degree of bravery to good, effective satire, and it’s hard to find that in a media world ruled by multibillion dollar corporations who have a vested interest in not unsettling the status quo too greatly.
The Break with Michelle Wolf is young, but it’s proving itself to be perhaps the smartest and bravest show among the current political comedy crew. Wolf has established herself as a trenchant but sly political commentator in her stand-up, adeptly pinpointing the absurd ways politics are practiced and discussed in the 21st century with a unique point of view and a bite that sneaks up on you. She’s been able to translate that voice over to her Netflix show with minimal speed bumps and missteps, and two months in the show has already started to hit its stride.
Case in point: this video, which is part of the episode of The Break that comes out this coming Sunday.
The standard late night programs and Daily Show derivatives have absolutely addressed ICE’s barbarous, racist policies, but what network, broadcast or cable, would sign off on a bit that equates US law enforcement with ISIS? Given what we know about ICE’s family separation and detention policies, comparing them to a terrorist organization isn’t too much of a reach or that much of an exaggeration. It’s good satire for a number of reasons. To use a cliche, it’s punching up: it’s making a bold accusation, one that is unexpected but not too extreme, about a government organization that’s legitimately terrible and inhumane. It’s a strong piece of advocacy about a major problem, but it never becomes didactic or sentimental. It also knows where to ultimately direct its invective; It doesn’t absolve the rank and file officers of ICE—the first half of the video is unflinching in its mockery of these dime store fascists—but Wolf’s appearance as Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen in the second half refocuses blame from the individuals within ICE to the callous government that funds them and encourages their egregious behavior. And, crucially, it remains funny throughout. It’s not always elegant—the reasons they say “ICE Is” starts to feel really forced around the time Wolf shows up—but it’s still the rare piece of recent satire that actually has a reason to exist beyond simply eating up airtime.
The Break with Michelle Wolf can be seen on Netflix, with a new episode every Sunday.