Critic’s Notebook: Showtime’s ‘Desus & Mero’ Is Gone Way Too Soon

Normally when shows are abruptly canceled, I’m accustomed to directing my ire at the network or streamer — to wondering why Netflix even bothers making shows for young adult viewers if they’re just going to pull the plug prematurely time and time again, or to pondering why Warner Bros would order a second season of Chad and promote multiple premiere dates for it and then yank the already-shot season without bothering to air it.

That’s why it’s hard to know how to respond to Monday (July 18) afternoon’s formal announcement that Desus & Mero, the Showtime late-night series seemingly on a normal summer hiatus, wouldn’t be returning.

The show’s official Twitter feed declared, “Bodega Hive: The illustrious @desusnice and @THEKIDMERO will be pursuing separate creative endeavors moving forward. #DESUSandMERO will not be returning to SHOWTIME. It’s been a good run, fam.”

It wasn’t like Showtime was publicly disappointed by the show’s ratings or its attempts to find traction in a crowded landscape. If that were the case, one could criticize Showtime for the show’s long in-season and between-season breaks or the lack of consistency on whether Desus & Mero was going to air once or twice per week. If this were a choice that Showtime had made, there could be some irritation at the overwhelming whiteness of the late-night space and frustration at how short the leash has traditionally been for shows fronted by people of color — whether it’s BET’s absurd short-sightedness when it came to The Rundown with Robin Thede or Comedy Central’s similar impatience with The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.

But there’s no indication that Showtime did anything other than accept and announce the end of Desus & Mero. And given that the show’s appeal was built exclusively on one thing — the chemistry between Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker and Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez — if its eponymous stars decided they were ready to take separate career paths, either permanently or temporarily, there’s nothing to really be upset about.

All I can say is this: I’m really going to miss Desus & Mero and not just because the hosts were enthusiastic hosts for the Television Critics Association Awards and fun TV’s Top 5 podcast guests.

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There was nothing else like it in late-night. And after two chaotic years in which my fatigue at current events caused me to reduce my viewing of The Daily Show, Full Frontal and several broadcast talk shows from “Watch every episode religiously” to “Check in periodically when I’m not too exhausted with headlines relating to COVID, short-sighted Supreme Court decisions or the guy who was president before the current administration,” Desus & Mero and Last Week Tonight were my only two unskippable shows (and even the latter has become distracted viewing in weeks when the main story was something too serious or too dry or too repetitive).

Put a different way, Desus & Mero had become my favorite show in late-night. At its best, it was a perfect encapsulation of the rapport between its stars, not as loose and zany as their Bodega Boys podcast — an increasingly sporadic format whose demise barely preceded the end of Desus & Mero — or even the Complex TV and Viceland versions of the show, but often better for the inclusion of some structure around their long-codified interactions. I loved Desus and Mero in their earlier incarnations, but I grew to appreciate the simplicity of two nights per week with 10 or 15 minutes of musing on headlines and trending social media topics, followed by some man-on-the-street humor and then an interview, often with old friends from earlier shows and with the sort of big names who never would have wanted to figure out what “Complex TV” is or was.

The headlines were always my favorite part of Desus & Mero, because that was where they most clearly set their voices apart — not that there were any other shows featuring the Bronx-infused patois of hosts with roots in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. They carried their banter with them from show to show and home to home, accumulating and expanding on running jokes and catchphrases and sources of good-natured, friendly ribbing. Gags involving their obsession with all things “sucio” — “dirty,” for the Spanish-deficient — jostled against celebrations of their favorite New York City media personalities, Mero’s ever-expanding family, the emergence of so-called “Hollywood Desus” and more.

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Because the late-night space is dominated by topicality, and topicality in recent years has been dominated by political outrage, they would make fun of “Trumpito.” In 2020, they even committed to interviewing many or most of the candidates for the presidency. The political discussions felt like a thing they knew they needed to do in order to be relevant and expand their audience, but they never approached politics begrudgingly and they never became monomaniacal about the latest White House scandal. No matter how bleak things got in the mainstream news world, Desus and Mero were just as happy to dig into the latest crazy viral video or mid-level hip-hop feud and to celebrate or mourn the latest developments with the Knicks or Yankees. Desus and Mero did the stuff the other late-night guys do, did it well and then let loose with the things they preferred to talk about, clearly recognizing that even James Corden can make fun of something dumb Politician X said in an interview on NewsMax, but not everybody is going to be able to go deep on, like, whatever is happening with Saweetie.

Desus and Mero weren’t always the most relaxed of interviewers. For the first few seasons, it was very easy to tell the difference between the people who joined them back before the brand was especially strong and the bigger names they had to interview for mainstream relevance or Showtime corporate synergy. They were, however, getting better. Much better. Just looking at this season’s interviews, they had a never-looser sit-down with Denzel Washington, an amusingly loopy chat with Jeff Bridges and a hilarious and scathing conversation with Jerrod Carmichael. Sure, you still had to fast-forward when somebody like Mark Wahlberg showed up, but Desus and Mero proved that if you put them with a Barry Jenkins or a Barry “Barack” Obama, they could be just different enough from your run-of-the-mill hosts to guarantee some fresh insights or interplay.

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They were also getting better with the free-floating segments that were initially the Showtime series’ weak spot. They found unlikely success in increasingly regular taste-testing segments, letting their staff surprise them with flights of fancy bottled water, celebrity-produced alcohol and fast-food fish sandwiches, the mirth escalating with their near-inevitable drunkenness. Speaking of staff, they were getting more and more value out of their writers and producers, especially Julia Young, exceptional and self-effacing as their topic-prompter and, during the COVID episodes, their designated laugher, and Josh Gondelman, whose nerdiness and Boston sports fandom made him a target for easy, but rarely cheap, mockery.

I don’t know what forces led to the public breakup midway through their fifth season, and I’m not smart enough to foresee the future for either star. It’s my instinct that Desus is probably primed for a new level of visibility. The “Hollywood Desus” jokes have occasionally felt pointed, but Desus has always been the more polished and loquacious piece of the duo, while Mero has been more comfortable with personal, family-based confessions, partner-dependent reactions and physical comedy that reliably cracked me up. To me, Desus would be a very, very mismatched choice as a potential James Corden replacement on CBS, though at the same time he could be the kind of big swing that pays dividends. We’re going to hear many worse replacement choices and many choices that wouldn’t expose the CBS real estate to a new audience.

The only thing I know is that every illustrious guest on Desus & Mero received their own neon sign — they stopped explaining the bodega-based connection to certain guests — and although 180 episodes is a pretty darned good run, the neon sign for Showtime’s Desus & Mero will read “Gone Too Soon.”