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The Problem with Jon Stewart review – dull, derivative … and far from funny

Who will he haul over the coals? … The Problem with Jon Stewart. Show caption Who will he haul over the coals? … The Problem with Jon Stewart. Photograph: Apple TV+
TV review

The great satirist is back with articulate anger, acute intelligence – and hardly any gags. But is his new show so worthy it’s a bit dull?

At first, it is horrible. The Problem with Jon Stewart (Apple TV+), a series of hour-long dives into different issues, marks the former The Daily Show presenter’s first proper return to television since he left the satirical current affairs show in 2015.

The first episode, dedicated to military veterans’ (lack of) healthcare, opens with behind-the-scenes footage of Stewart working on the content with his writing team. Although I suspect the intention was quite the opposite, this teasing glimpse of the inner sanctum has the same whiff of smug self-congratulation about it that had started to hang around The Daily Show by the end of Stewart’s run – and augurs ill for the new venture. So does the fact that the first joke cracked on set falls unmistakably flat. “Well,” says Stewart into the silence. “I guess that answers the question of whether the show will be funny or not.”

Matters, fortunately, do start to improve thereafter. Stewart, a longtime advocate for healthcare for veterans and 9/11 first responders (he testified in Congress about the latter in 2019), riffs on the inconsistency between the government’s professed admiration for “our troops” and the failure to provide anything like sufficient access to, or provision of, the many medical services they need. He then narrows his focus to those who became sick after exposure to “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Burn pits are the military’s favoured way of dealing with everything it needs to get rid of. And they really do mean everything. They dig big pits – generally near bases for ease of transport – and into them go broken trucks, old uniforms, batteries, amputated limbs, nuclear waste and entire companies’ worth of excrement. Then the whole lot is covered with jet fuel and set alight. Nearby, soldiers breathe in the smoke laden with benzene and dioxins, and go on to develop lung conditions, cancers and other incapacitating health problems at rates that far outstrip the norm.

What a coincidence, says the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. It sure is, agrees the Department of Defense. Oh, come the hell on, say all those who still have breath in their bodies to say it. Interviews and a roundtable discussion with the co-founders of the activist group Burn Pits 360 and some of the sick former personnel they represent are topped off with an interview by Stewart with Denis McDonough, veterans’ affairs secretary. For all his comic chops, this kind of thing may be what Stewart has always done best. The wisecracking facade drops and is replaced by articulate anger, acute intelligence and a refusal to be deflected. It is a calmer Stewart than during his famous diatribe on Crossfire in 2004, during which he tore into his rightwing blowhard interviewers Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, or his 2009 hauling over the coals of CNBC’s Jim Cramer in the wake of the financial crisis. Clearly, Stewart feels the weight of the responsibility given to him; he has mastery of his brief and McDonough writhes in well-earned agony on the skewer.

As a programme it is righteously furious about a worthy subject and, as a result, just a little dull. The second episode, Freedom, finds its groove and works much better. It begins by wrestling with the illogic of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers who cannot/will not see that collective liberty sometimes requires individual sacrifice. It then expands outwards to look at the true threats to freedom and democracy faced by people in other countries, and the more intangible problem of how you persuade people convinced otherwise that a slight reduction in their long-held privilege does not amount to tyranny but to a tiny step towards greater equality.

It is still not a funny programme – though there are many more laughs, from a much warmer audience – but it and we are now clear that it is not trying to be. Gags are mostly confined to the introduction and the rest largely arise organically during the wide-ranging discussion among Stewart and his guests (all targets of genuinely oppressive regimes or tactics in different countries).

It is worth noting that Wyatt Cenac, the only Black writer on The Daily Show for much of Stewart’s tenure and who had various run-ins with the host, had a similar show – Problem Areas with Wyatt Cenac – from 2018 to 19 and tweeted pointedly about it when Stewart’s was announced. Perhaps a problem they could discuss around that table somewhere down the line.

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