Review: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

 /  May 29, 2014, 11 a.m.


John Oliver’s latest gig is in danger of being The Daily Show: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. The first episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver adequately apes Jon Stewart’s 15-year-old comedy newscast format: Cutting one-liners interrupt news clips as Oliver lampoons American culture and the media’s priorities. Oliver's well-developed persona mixes satire and a childlike horror at the state of the media and politics. Airing on HBO lets Last Week Tonight approach issues differently. Last Week Tonight’s executive producer, Tim Carvell, hopes that the show’s weekly format and longer broadcast time will turn into a strength. Compared to the Daily Show-style direct response to the 24-hour news cycle, he says the show should “be able to…step back and take more time to do one or two stories in great depth.”

Hints of Carvell’s ideal approach appear in the first episodes, especially in Oliver’s two main stories about the Indian elections and a court case about inaccurate food labels. Oliver picks up on one ridiculous event from the week, and then zooms out to skewer related issues. Eventually, he lands on broad societal concerns, including the dangers of news entertainment worldwide and the outsize influence corporations have in American media. These hints, however, are just that. The kind of stories that Carvell imagines for Last Week Tonight are buried underneath the torrent of other topics Oliver covers. They don’t get the amount of time or the level of attention necessary to expand into real, deep, long-form stories.

Last Week Tonight really distinguishes itself from its competitors because HBO has more latitude to produce provocative content. HBO, the subscription-model channel that is responsible for such shows as Game of Thrones and Girls, has very few content restrictions. Not only can writers and producers use more ‘colorful’ language, but they can also discuss themes that would be too risqué for basic cable. Because HBO relies financially on subscribers, not advertisers, Oliver has free rein to swear as much as he likes, and the show has no obligations to please sponsors. Without incessant bleeping, Last Week Tonight lacks the insouciant winking character of The Daily Show’s would-be-profane tirades. Oliver's profanity has more weight for his freedom to deliver straight-faced disdain or gleeful, unflinching mockery. What were playful turns of phrase on Comedy Central—such as “just the tip of the ****berg” from Oliver's Daily Show hosting debut—turn into hard-edged expressions of contempt on HBO. As an example, Oliver criticizes Coca-Cola’s defense of misleading packaging as “having the characterizing flavor of bullshit”, delivering the line straight to the camera with unflinching disdain. Without censorship, Last Week Tonight lacks some of the laughs that the Daily Show model garnered by testing the rules, but Oliver’s criticism seems more serious.

HBO’s influence is also visible in Last Week Tonight’s posh production. Visually, the show is worlds away from the cluttered sets of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Clean, bright and minimalist, Oliver’s set feels like the Daily Show with a shave, haircut and a spankin’-new copy of The Idiot’s Guide to Flat Design. This is a modern show for the post-iOS 7 age, and bears a strong resemblance to the visual branding of ‘new’ news sources like Longreads and Circa. Like its new-media siblings, Last Week Tonight’s design clears away distractions to focus on content and orients the show toward a younger audience.

Without commercials, Last Week Tonight runs seven minutes longer than its cable counterparts, and in doing so must rely on pre-taped interstitials to move between segments. Clips are important to break up the monotony of 29 minutes of Oliver at his anchor desk. They’re also evidence of Last Week Tonight’s contemporary approach, intentionally designed for viral potential on social media. The first episode interstitials include a clip reel of John McCain repeating himself, a musical spoof on Oregon’s twee healthcare advertisements and a biting report on cheerleading labor issues, told with the blurred lens and deep male narration of ESPN Classic. They’re bite-sized, stylized, self-contained bits, each visually distinct from the main show. The way that Last Week Tonight cuts between the two formats is similar to SNL’s bifurcation into sketch comedy and Digital Short productions. Like the Lonely Island videos, they free the show from the typical format and appeal to a broader audience.

Even with the interstitials breaking up the show, the first episode of Last Week Tonight feels long. The show has two main stories, an interview, three interstitial breaks, and a handful of smaller potshots. It’s packed, and the stories are disjointed and isolated. By the final interview, built on jokes Oliver has told a dozen times about NSA privacy abuse, Last Week Tonight feels tired. The Daily Show format doesn’t work as well over twenty-nine minutes as it does over twenty-two.

So far, Last Week Tonight has not surpassed the level of “Overlong Daily Show.” The humor, format and choice of content are practically identical, with slight stylistic twists and seven extra minutes. The trappings are new, and the lack of censorship is new, but the heart of the show is the same.

The show’s two main stories, though, hint that the show could evolve into a different and interesting format. If the show cuts down on one-off remarks about weekly news and programs its guest interview to coincide with one of the main stories, it could be more than a Daily Show imitation. If he wants to become a kind of comedic Charlie Rose or 60 Minutes, Oliver has the right resources to provide full, detailed arguments about specific issues, and carve a niche of his own in news comedy.

Tanner Caplan


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