The televised variety show, at least in a traditional understanding of the form, has largely died, being supplanted by the late night talk show. 2 Dope Queens, the hit podcast that’s become a series of HBO specials, is out to revive that format in a thoroughly contemporary way.
The second season premiere, “Fashion,” suggests that it’s succeeding. Hosted by Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, 2 Dope Queens showcases their easy, unforced banter. The theme of the episode is pretty loose, allowing them to go off on tangents about, for example, Williams getting a piercing from a scarily chill guy telling her how brave it is, and how important it is that she believes in something. “I’m not marching on Selma!” says Williams.
The centerpiece of the episode, an appearance by Lupita Nyong’o (introduced as someone “you know…because she can say ‘Wakanda Forever,’” which, in 2019, is like the most exciting way you can possibly introduce someone, for good reason), demonstrates how 2 Dope Queens sometimes can slip into Fallon-esque patterns, but also how it can rocket past them and surprise you. The hosts do somewhat predictably ask the “so what was it like to make _____” question, but in their defense, you arguably can’t not ask a member of the cast of Black Panther that, and Williams and Robinson are so winning that you don’t really care. The ‘fun and games’ part of this segment, a race to successfully braid the hair on disembodied heads while distracting each other, is just weirder and more compellingly competitive than what we’re used to on more conventional programs.
This is a variety show that shakes off the restrictions of anything that might air on network television, taking advantage of what HBO can offer, not beholden to commercial breaks, and giving its guests (which, in addition to Nyong’o, includes the comedians Jaime Lee, Solomon Georgio and Janine Brito) a little room to breathe and flex their considerable chops, as opposed to rushing through five minutes of material.
The only drawback is the size of the theater, which creates a lot of negative space. You have to commend Williams and Robinson for capitalizing on a cult following and a real budget, but sometimes it feels like the show might benefit from a slightly more intimate venue. However, I’ll be the first to admit that this might just be me locked in an outdated mindset for how earlier incarnations of the variety show have worked. Williams and Robinson have proved they can adapt with the best of them, and it’s exciting to watch them do it in real time.