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TV review: ‘That Damn Michael Che’ gives the ‘Weekend Update’ star a chance to shine on his own

(Courtesy of HBO Max)

"That Damn Michael Che"

HBO Max

May 6

By EJ Panaligan

May 10, 2021 12:32 p.m.

Michael Che’s comedic talent continues to shine separately from the “Weekend Update” desk at “Saturday Night Live.”

Released Thursday on HBO Max and executive produced by “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels, “That Damn Michael Che” is a six-episode, exploratory foray into the mind of the longtime “SNL” cast member and “Weekend Update” co-anchor. Throughout a variety of sketches, Che ponders the relationship between policing and the Black community in light of last summer’s social justice uprisings, worries about whether he’s sufficiently using his platform as a Black creative in Hollywood and lays bare his difficulties with staying in a healthy relationship.

The overall series is an honest blend of forthright comedic moments and poignant social commentary that depict exactly who Che is as a person and how he perceives different aspects of life – a compelling perspective that garners many laughs while leaving viewers with something to think about.

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The pilot episode “Policin'” truthfully sets the tone for the entire series, opening with Che in a talking-head setting where he offers off-the-cuff commentary that’s tangentially related to the episode’s sketches – a device used throughout the series that effectively keeps the laughs flowing. It’s an environment similar to his presence on “Weekend Update” , albeit more relaxed and casual with the creative freedom that HBO Max offers over NBC’s strict network television guidelines.

But this show doesn’t shortchange viewers on references to the longtime program that launched Che’s comedy career, as the first sketch finds him stuck in an elevator with a woman played by “SNL” veteran Cecily Strong. Strong’s character checks all the boxes of performative allyship regarding recent social justice movements – his own idea of a personal hell that unfolds throughout the episode.

And among the show’s strongest traits is its writing – headed by Che himself –who rarely plays characters or acts in sketches outside of “Weekend Update” . His experience as a head writer on “SNL” continues to shine with his show as he sharply pens situations for sketches in which a dramatized version of himself entertainingly interacts with the absurdity of other characters. Che also isn’t afraid to be honest about himself, poking fun at some of his shortcomings and personality flaws that have made themselves evident throughout his adult life and comedy career.

For instance, “Bourbon & Water” is a meditation on Che’s inability to be truthful and loving in romantic relationships, seamlessly mixing together a present-day sketch of his ongoing breakup with a flashback sketch of a young Che in school being lectured by an inebriated guest speaker about the dangers of toxic and needy women. The structural parallels between the two sketches inform his present-day indifference to romance, and a third hilarious “Family Feud”-style sketch centered around his failing relationship brings home such telling points.

[Related: TV review: Netflix’s ‘Shadow and Bone’ summons excellence in ambitious adaptation]

The show hits its stride in the latter half as Che’s commentary on his own career and success comes off as the most thought-out and poignant writing of the entire series. The episode “Sex Worker” is structured around a pretend therapy session in which he outlines a dream about doing a university Q&A on his career. And it’s the absurdity of the two stand-in characters for Che in the dream that brings the laughs, while underlying questions linger about how he has obtained such a level of success as a Black man in entertainment.

Perhaps the easiest and most honorable comparison for “That Damn Michael Che” is to comedy legend Dave Chappelle’s “Chappelle’s Show,” a sketch variety show that had a three-year run on Comedy Central in the early 2000s . Comparisons to the legends that had their moment before him are the basis of the finale episode “Only Built 4 Leather Suits,” in which Che acknowledges that even his family and friends can’t appreciate his comedy career without recalling a fondness for the days of “Martin” and “In Living Color.” Throughout the episode, Che sits in confession with a pastor played by “SNL” alum Colin Quinn, a metaphorical and visual bridge between two “Weekend Update” anchors that underscores the episode’s theme of legacy.

But what the finale highlights best about this series-long dive into Che’s psyche is that doesn’t have to live up to the likes of Chappelle or Eddie Murphy, nor does his writing ability have to match the sharpness and tact of shows like “Atlanta” or “Fleabag.”

Instead, his style of comedy is one he can call his own.

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EJ Panaligan | Senior staff
Panaligan is a senior staffer for the Arts and Entertainment and Opinion sections. He was previously the Opinion editor in 2020-21, and created the "Columns From Quarantine" Opinion column series. For the Arts and Entertainment section, he regularly contributes features, columns, reviews and Q&As to the Music | Fine Arts beat. He also co-created the "Life and Hip-Hop" Arts column series. He is from Carson, California but unabashedly dreams of a professional life in New York City.
Panaligan is a senior staffer for the Arts and Entertainment and Opinion sections. He was previously the Opinion editor in 2020-21, and created the "Columns From Quarantine" Opinion column series. For the Arts and Entertainment section, he regularly contributes features, columns, reviews and Q&As to the Music | Fine Arts beat. He also co-created the "Life and Hip-Hop" Arts column series. He is from Carson, California but unabashedly dreams of a professional life in New York City.
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