Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for October 7 through 14 is “Episode 1.1,” the series premiere of BET’s The Rundown With Robin Thede.
Every time I start to get overwhelmed by the number of late-night shows on TV, I remind myself that we’re experiencing an unprecedented tidal wave of news. We might as well have a variety of options when turning to a comedian for sharp commentary on it all, and now BET is making a smart bet that people will want to do exactly that with The Rundown’s Robin Thede.
The former head writer for The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, Thede knows the rhythms of late night well — so well that she’s perfectly comfortable twisting them just enough to suit her needs and singular voice.
As many have noted, Thede is the only black woman on TV hosting a show like this at all; as Thede herself noted to the Hollywood Reporter, there’s no show like this made with a primarily black audience like BET’s in mind, either.
“In creating my own show, we felt there was a void in the space where black people are spoken to in late-night comedy directly,” Thede told THR. “There is no show that is created to speak directly to black people. Trevor Noah does a great job but that show is for Comedy Central’s audience and we have BET’s audience.”
That doesn’t mean that Thede is about to turn away any nonblack viewers who want to hear what she has to say. But it does mean that The Rundown occupies a unique space in late night, and a long-overdue one at that. And if the show continues to follow the example of its confident first episode, that space is in good hands.
Robin Thede knows exactly what kind of show she wants to make
In The Rundown’s first episode, it’s obvious that Thede has no shortage of topics to cover. It squeezes in monologues, a pretaped cold open featuring Thede sucking up to a hot Trump supporter, and a “pop-up concert” spotlighting Los Angeles rapper Duckwrth. With just over 20 minutes to work with, and the fact that The Rundown will air just once a week on Thursdays, the show has very little space in which to air its wealth of material.
So, as with most premieres, this first episode is a little overstuffed. In between the cold open and the closing concert, Thede tackles Jemele Hill’s ESPN suspension, Eminem’s anti-Trump freestyle, the NFL’s complicated relationship with the health of its players, and even a viral video about a man scampering around the cop who pulled him over like some bonkers cartoon character. But where The Nightly Show had trouble balancing its monologue with its roundtable discussion with its sporadic correspondent interviews, The Rundown mostly manages to streamline its material via a couple of calculated format decisions that work in the show’s favor.
Thede lists the subjects at hand in a graphic over her shoulder like she’s on ESPN running down the biggest sports stories of the day, then gets to work reeling them off like she’s delivering one knockout punch after another. She assumes her audience has some base knowledge of what she’s talking about so she doesn’t have to get bogged down in details — a calculation that, by the sound of her thrilled studio audience, pays off. And when a joke doesn’t quite work with her studio audience, she lets loose a wicked grin as she moves right along. (“So, Kwanzaa is just 75 days away…”)
When she does nail a punchline, however, the visible thrill Thede gets from the response is infectious. Even as she tells jokes wearing an impeccable green velvet suit, her delivery is loose and casual, like she’s pouring you a drink and catching you up on the craziest shit you missed that week.
But even if she doesn’t traffic in the same visceral rage as a Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee, or the wry analytics of a Seth Meyers or John Oliver, Thede’s commentary is absolutely still made for drawing blood. She doesn’t lean on ripping into Trump specifically nearly as much as her late-night peers, but when she’s not pleased with him, you’ll sure as hell know. As she told THR: “My attitude about it is black people have been through way worse than Trump so I don't need to be so alarmist as other people are. But I'm definitely not going to be kind to him, either.”
For example, take her introducing the Eminem rap as him attacking “their president,” or answering an outraged Fox commentator wondering “what happened to civility” with a deadpan, “President Trump,” like the very concept of “President Trump” is in itself a joke.
It’s also no coincidence that Thede’s best segment is her most pointed one, on Hill. Thede scoffs that Hill’s two-week suspension is “bullshit” because “that’s the same punishment police officers get for killing black people,” and points out the hypocrisy of Trump attacking people like Hill and Colin Kaepernick while ignoring the white Miss America contestant who called out his Charlottesville response as willfully ignorant of white supremacy.
“Trump likes his targets like we like our Magic Johnson Theaters,” Thede says. “Black and loud.”
And make no mistake: That “we” is crucial to Thede’s show being strong right out of the gate. Thede knows her audience, or at least the one she wants to entertain, given how few shows cater directly to their experiences. And if she gets to make anyone who falls outside that demographic laugh too, then hey, the more the merrier. But Thede feels no need to hold the hands of nonblack viewers who might not immediately get a specific joke. She trusts that they’ll either figure it out or stick with her anyway, and she’s charismatic enough to make that work. As Ashley Ray writes at the A.V. Club, “The Rundown With Robin Thede feels like Black Twitter: The TV Show and that’s absolutely a good thing.”
The Rundown With Robin Thede airs Thursdays at 11 pm EST on BET. Those with a cable login can watch the premiere now on BET.com.