It might actually be an understatement to say that W. Kamau Bell's FX series premiere was the moment every Bay Area comedy fan has been waiting for — at least since March 28, when the San Francisco-based comedian sent out a press release with the cryptic headline "A Little Bit of Big News." Produced by comedian Chris Rock and wedged between Anger Management and Louis C.K.'s Louie on the network's Thursday night slot, it's a slicker, more condensed version of Bell's ever-evolving solo performance, The W. Kamau Bell Curve. And given Kamau's interest in race politics, the title seems like a reclaimed jeer: It's Totally Biased.
Last Thursday's premiere came with tons of fanfare, and that's to say nothing of the Twitter campaign that Bell and his social media-savvy brethren launched months ahead of time. It began with a strong endorsement from Rock when he was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air that morning, and pelted with the same questions that Bell asked when he sat down with Rock on Totally Biased (e.g., "What was up with that 'white people's independence day' tweet?"). Then came the premiere party in New York, and a screening at The Dark Room in San Francisco, where fans who don't have cable could watch the show in a group for a mere $5. The place was packed.
Think of Bell as a black Jon Stewart — a rather oft used but instructive comparison. They have the same political thrust, they both use video montages to substantiate their points, and they're both prone to snarky commentary. (Bell, addressing a tweeter named "Team No Hoes": "You need to get your education did.") And like his late-night antecedent, Bell knows how to keep pace with a high-metabolism news cycle. The difference, of course, is that Bell is singularly focused on race. His first episode focused on Gabby Douglas' gold-medal win and the flap about her hair, the Sikh temple shooting, and New York City's stop-and-frisk law. Although Kamau's vignettes were largely based on the kind of surface-level, man-on-the-street reporting that's commonly used on talk shows, Bell incorporated a lot more social media than some of his older peers (he was an early adopter of Twitter, and he enjoys sparring with random people on the Internet). His commentary was also a lot more pointed — Bell makes no attempt to hide his opinions on stop-and-frisk, and he has no problem scolding Douglas' detractors.
In many ways Totally Biased hews to the tropes of a traditional talk show, which makes it a bit of a throwback. Like most late-night programming, it's recorded before a live studio audience. And it's structured very much like Stewart of Letterman: A winsome opening monologue followed by some video gags, a little field reporting, and an interview — in that order. At a time when many of his peers are producing so-called "anti-talk shows" (a term New York Times writer Jason Zinoman used to describe the new spate of spoofs on Adult Swim network), Bell has stuck with a more predictable formula.
Still, Totally Biased has a lot of fresh angles, and a lot of left-field zingers, owing to the creative team behind it. Bell's head writers include Nato Green, Janine Brito, Kevin Avery, and Hari Kondabolu, all old friends or alumni of Bell's Laughter Against the Machine Tour. Guitarist Vernon Reid of the band Living Colour composed his theme music. Boots Riley contributed part of the score. Thus, Bell has used his new platform not only to fulminate, but also to help boost the careers of other deserving Bay Area talents, some of whom might not otherwise get the opportunity. That's reason enough to watch the show. Not to mention it's anchored by one of the most infectious personalities on television. But I may be biased.
Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell airs on FX network every Thursday at 11 p.m., FXNetworks.com