Maybe not. And yet, with promising results, the Showtime series “Ziwe” attempts a double whammy — it’s a television adaptation of a premise popularized on a pandemic-era Instagram Live series. While the comedian Ziwe, who is Black, previously confronted guests about their notions of race on a Web series called “Baited,” the Instagram version took off as much of her core audience of young millennials moved their social lives onto apps. Her hard stares and purposeful pauses found the humor in race relations, just swipes away from the influx of earnest anti-racist infographics.
Welcoming on folks like cookbook author Alison Roman and infamous influencer Caroline Calloway, Ziwe — who sheds her last name, Fumudoh, in the professional sphere — catered to viewers who kept up with Internet scandals and could appreciate the irony of Roman struggling under pressure to name five Asian people. (Ziwe would often extend invitations to anyone finding themselves in hot water on a given day, claiming they’d be “an iconic guest.”) Aimed at a wider audience, a Showtime series demands more variety. Ziwe responds by tacking musical numbers and sketches onto her trademark interviews, all of which are shaped around a different social issue each episode.
She has experience with the audience, having written for the network’s late-night show “Desus & Mero,” and in the first three episodes of “Ziwe” invites on a similarly eclectic mix of pop culture figures: author Fran Lebowitz, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bowen Yang, comedian Patti Harrison and television personality Eboni K. Williams (who recently joined Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New York City”). Actor Adam Pally and singer Phoebe Bridgers will appear later in the season.
Lebowitz confesses to not having “the slightest idea” who Ziwe is and says she only came onto the show because of a persistent producer — making the beloved New York curmudgeon an unusual choice for the pilot, but one that allows Ziwe to reintroduce herself to viewers. The episode, titled “55%” after the percentage of White women who voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election, establishes the cheeky tone right off the bat; anyone who would even jokingly deem Lebowitz “the Martin Luther King [Jr.] of White women” isn’t grasping for hard-hitting commentary.
“What bothers you more,” Ziwe asks Lebowitz. “Slow walkers or racism?”
Ziwe is a provocateur, and her show thrives when its celebrity guests are in on the joke — exhibited by Harrison and Yang, who asks whether they were the only ones paired for an interview because “two Asians equals one White person?” (This dynamic was often true of Ziwe’s Web series as well, such as in the “Model Minorities” episode when comedian Aparna Nancherla gamely plays along with footage edited to make her seem racist.) And while musical numbers and scripted sketches in the first few episodes fall flat, segments featuring ordinary people — including one where Ziwe interviews several White women named Karen, and another where she demands to know whether her nose bothers a plastic surgeon who suggests she make it more “refined” — show potential.
A Showtime representative noted that Ziwe will be taping an additional interview for each episode in the week leading up to its airdate, meaning the show will benefit from the timely chaos that fueled her Instagram Live series. The question that remains is whether that audience is willing to make the leap to a network to witness her tongue-in-cheek antics.
Ziwe (half-hour) premieres Sunday at 11 p.m. on Showtime.