‘Patriot Act’ Was So Much More Than Just a Win for South Asian Representation

Hasan Minhaj’s now-cancelled Netflix series boldly unpacked polarizing issues occurring domestically and globally.

Hasan Minhaj’s now-cancelled Netflix series boldly unpacked polarizing issues occurring domestically and globally.

by Zeahaa Rehman
October 28, 2020

Loud violins juxtaposed with clapping and blaring sirens echo through my head. It’s the theme song to Netflix’s Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj — the American political comedy talk show hosted and co-produced by standup comedian and The Daily Show alum, Hasan Minhaj. “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, episodes on Sund—,” I sing aloud , before I realize with a start that there will be no episodes on Sunday from now on.

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj premiered in the Fall of 2018 on Netflix and at the time of its premiere, it was one of the two late-night-style talk shows hosted by a BIPOC alongside The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, and the only talk show hosted by a Muslim (South) Asian person (NBC’s A Little Late by Lilly Singh and Showtime’s Desus & Mero premiered a year later). Accordingly, it received much attention followed soon by acclaim from Vulture, Variety, The A.V. Club, Quartz, and the general audience.

As a member of the South Asian Muslim diaspora in North America, I was immeasurably excited to watch a TV show featuring someone who looked like me, had similar lived experiences, and had been so outspoken about said experiences of post-911 Islamophobia, the cultural gap between him and his immigrant parents, the cultural gap between him and his white peers, and constantly being asked “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?)—at least in comparison to Aziz Ansari, Kumal Nanjiani, or Mindy Kaling. During an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Minhaj promised that Patriot Act would be “like being at a Drake concert but you’re learning,” and he did not disappoint.

Taking a page out of TBS’ Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Patriot Act featured Minhaj unpacking and explaining a topic for 20-odd minutes in his satirical, sarcastic style full of hand-gestures, while digital screens cited his sources behind him. The show spanned six volumes, 40 episodes, and numerous online exclusives, before being abruptly cancelled by Netflix this August.

Netflix has admittedly not had much luck with late-night-style TV shows. Since 2017, Netflix has cancelled The Break with Michelle Wolf and The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale after one season and Chelsea after two seasons, while both Norm MacDonald Has a Show and The Fix have not released any more episodes since both their first seasons dropped in 2018.

Yet Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj felt promising—to me as well as to Netflix if the 32-episode order they gave it was any indication—and it delivered on that promise.

Patriot Act was a well-researched and well-rounded show that boldly unpacked polarizing issues occurring domestically and globally. The show tackled Saudi Arabia and the autocratic rule of its crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, in its second episode. Despite the episode being flagged by the Saudi government and eventually removed for streaming in Saudi Arabia by Netflix, Minhaj went on to tackle censorship in China, protests in Sudan, and Indian Elections in further episodes—the latter led to him not being allowed inside Indian Prime Minister Modi’s rally in Texas. He even took shots at Netflix, namely its tax evasion during his Turbotax Sucks Ass Skit.

Patriot Act also analyzed America’s problem-ridden public transit, internet, higher education institutions, and mental and physical health system while also explaining the migrant crisis at the American border, America’s broken policing system, the drama within the National Rifles Association (NRA), and the loss of civil liberties under Trump. And it did a damn good job of it, too.

Rather than simply mention a relevant topic, like Supreme, Fentanyl, cruises, or Amazon (both the forest and the company), and crack a few sarcastic one-liners about it, Minhaj explained why the issue was relevant. He delved into the past to explain how the matter arose, fast forwarded to describe how it might worsen and lead to further troubles, and presented an argument about how to fix or overcome it. He examined how it intersected with other prevalent issues, acknowledged and dismantled counterarguments against it, and outlined ways in which his audience could be proactive rather than powerless.

And Minaj made sure to do his research, citing sources throughout in the form of news clip montages, interviews with experts and insiders, and excerpts from news articles, academic papers and statistical studies. That was one of the best things about Patriot Act: It did the work, and made information that is typically hidden behind paywalls accessible to people who neither have the time or the money to read up on every issue, let alone research its roots or resolutions. It connected and condensed information from a wide range of sources and provided it to the audience in a digestible and physically accessible way (all of Patriot Act’s episodes are freely available on YouTube).

Patriot Act was also set apart from its counterparts by its stunning graphics that earned its creative team an Emmy, its hilarious web-exclusive skits and deep cuts that allowed you to get to know Minhaj’s personality, process, and politics better, and, of course, the weekly treat of seeing Minhaj’s legs (and sneaker collection) for most, if not all, of its runtime. Minhaj was also open to speaking about divisive topics, particularly the blackout in Kashmir during a Deep Cut clip which he posted to his personal social media accounts.

What made Patriot Act even more compelling was that Minhaj did not shy away from his identity as part of the South Asian Muslim diaspora in North America. Instead, he highlighted it. He regularly referenced his experience growing up as a child of first-generation South Asian immigrants, joking about how lotas are more hygienic than toilet paper, about how the sport Indians dominate the most is the spelling bee, and about how he hated watching cricket with his father as a child because it resembled a “Brooks Brothers catalogue.”

Minhaj’s parents made regular appearances on the show, either during humorous asides (Minhaj is his father’s retirement plan) or in-person. They supported Minhaj as he retook the SATs only to get a worse score, revealed their love of Costco’s free samples while answering questions asked by Subtle Asian Traits members, and even encouraged the Patriot Act audience to stay safe and social distance when the lockdown began.

Minhaj was also unapologetic about his identity as a Muslim. He joked about India accusing him for being a spy for Pakistan just because he was Muslim, brought up Quebec’s Bill 21—which banned religious symbols in the workplace—during his viral grilling interview with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, before trying to get the PM to convert to Islam, and began his interview with district attorney Keith Ellison with this hilarious du’aa for Allah to “protect [them] from white women in yoga pants.”

Minhaj also made sure to point out issues plaguing the South Asian community. He constantly joked about South Asian celebrities in Hollywood being confused as each other, despite the limited number of them. He satirized South Asian kids using desi white-collar criminals to push back against parental expectations, and being bad. He pointed out the butchering of non-white names and even created a pronunciation guide. And he bluntly called out the anti-Blackness within the South Asian community in the episode about George Floyd and urged us to do better.

Minhaj’s identity as a member of the Muslim South Asian diaspora allowed him to cover global topics that require lived-in experience and nuance for an American audience. Trevor Noah could not make as compelling a case for America and the world to reassess its relationship with America as Minhaj, who as a Muslim American understands Saudi’s significance amongst Muslims. It seems unlikely that John Oliver, despite being from the UK where cricket is popular, could cover Cricket Corruption with equal insight and aplomb as Minhaj. Lily Singh certainly cannot confront the South Asian community about its anti-Blackness as bluntly as Minhaj when she is so reluctant to address how her persona appropriates heavily from Black culture.

Perhaps that was why the loss of Patriot Act was felt so keenly that fans appealed Netflix to bring it back through three separate change.org petitions, the largest of which garnered approximately 18,000 signatures.

Many felt that Patriot Act’s cancellation was akin to the disappearance of Avatar Aang, the last airbender—just when the world needed it most, it vanished. America is currently preparing for a presidential election in November 2020 amidst a global pandemic with an unaffordable healthcare system, nationwide-protests against police brutality, national disasters courtesy of climate change, and an immigration crisis.

Minhaj’s style of summarizing complex topics in a simple way would have been very valuable to an audience struggling to keep up with Trump lying constantly, destroying civil liberties, threatening Black Lives Matter protestors, and interfering with the postal service among other problematic actions.

Despite its pros, however, Patriot Act was not perfect show. Tweets from the show’s female writers Sheila V. Kumar, Camille Kopischke, Nur Ibrahim, and producer, Amy Zhang, say that the Patriot Act newsroom was a toxic workplace for its female staff.

Kumar stated that she had “never been more unhappy” while working at Patriot Act, while Ibrahim mentioned being “humiliated and gaslit, targeted and ignored,” and experiencing “mental anguish” during her time there, and Zhang echoed that many women of colour were “silenced, treated unfairly [and] made to later doubt their own skills in a toxic newsroom.” Minhaj, as a producer, cannot be blameless for this.

However, it is possible to condemn Patriot Act for being a toxic workplace while still commending it for being an incredibly informative and entertaining show. There are all sorts of terrible things that happen around the world, and comedy feels like one of those few avenues where to discuss them without becoming completely cynical. Patriot Act was one of these avenues, which is why its cancellation feels like a loss not just for the (South) Asian audience who saw themselves represented, but for anyone who wanted to be well-informed and well-entertained by a talk show.

Looking back, I can’t help but think of Patriot Act’s very first episode, which Minhaj began by saying, “We did it.” Minhaj elaborated that he had been working on Patriot Act for two years; he wanted to make a show about culture, politics, and news surrounded by iPads. “It’s insane,” Minhaj exclaimed. “But we did it, baby. We’re out here.” And thanks to Minhaj, many (South) Asian diaspora feel like we finally are out here.