In trading his correspondent suit for a full-time news anchor suit, John Oliver became the latest in a line of brilliant minds to leave Comedy Central’s The Daily Show behind for less Jon Stewart-y pastures. It’s hard to imagine a better place for foul-mouthed, wit-infused satire than HBO, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is the refined-but-bitter scotch drinker, sitting at the bar with nuggets of cynical wisdom falling out of his mouth with each sip. And we all know that kind of guy is only as tolerable as the listener is tolerant, so the series’ half-hour runtime is a perfect blend of depth and brevity, skipping from topic to topic while rooting around each one long enough to make sure you’re fully aware of how ludicrous this subject matter actually is.
The set-up is almost too simple. John Oliver the Quip Machine tackles current events in front of a lively audience until it’s time for the interview segment, with interstitials – like John McCain making the same joke in six different places – filling the spaces where commercials would go on ad-based networks. There’s definitely room to play around with the format, but if these next five episodes do nothing more than give Oliver an America-sized sandbox to bury the media beneath, I won’t be displeased.
And that seems to be the major difference between Last Week Tonight and The Daily Show. The latter is often an indictment of the government as seen through media coverage, and the former is a scathing look at media from a broader perspective; or at least its attack on the media features a broader front line, with outlying soldiers picking up the rest of the week’s mishaps, like NFL cheerleaders sick of being the diner waitresses of the sports entertainment complex.
The premiere episode kicks off innocently enough with civil rights enemy number one, L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was recently re-ousted for derogatory comments against black people and their place in his girlfriend’s life. After calling Sterling a “walking before photo,” Oliver then temporarily turns his targets to the even more blatantly bigoted Cliven Bundy. It’s then we get to see the first great moment in the show, as the subject of Oregon’s expensive and ridiculously botched healthcare website somehow becomes a public service announcement parody in which musician Lisa Loeb basically tells Oregonians to go fuck themselves for being a state stupid enough to blow a lot of taxpayers’ money advertising an even bigger waste of taxpayers’ money. The irony that HBO had to spend money in order for the show to make fun of this was lost on no one, I’m sure.
For the interview segment, Last Week Tonight somehow landed former NSA Director Keith Alexander, and Oliver got a chance to hone the interview skills he’s picked up during his eight years dangling as an underling beneath Jon Stewart’s frothing teats. He’s never as patronizing as The Colbert Report’s staunch leading man treats his guests, nor is he as categorically surface level as Stewart. Oliver obviously tries to get a rise out of Alexander in several ways, the most amusing of which involves deciding whether a cute kitty cat named Mr. Tiggles or a handsome man who listens is the correct way to go about rebranding the NSA.
But it’s maybe too lighthearted. Alexander comes across as neither a bad guy for enacting untold amounts of surveillance on the American public, nor a victim of Last Week Tonight’s hard-hitting scandal-mongering. It’s just a goofy interview, and Oliver’s wicked sarcasm does little more for the Greater Good than point out that a British comedian clearly cares more about our country than many of its citizens do.
The middle of the episode is where Last Week Tonight did something refreshing and hopefully emblematic of what we can expect in future episodes. Oliver goes on a lengthy tirade against the news media for barely paying attention to the upcoming election in India, the biggest in the world, with over 800 million potential voters. He points out that despite this huge number of voters, the election is still a contest between only two people, and in humorously pointing a finger at CNN and the like, Oliver delivers solid information about candidates Rahul Gandhi (and his Han Solo vest) and Narendra Modi, a growing favorite whose involvement with violent events in the past taint what would otherwise looks like a flawless campaign. It’s educational, and it’s hilariously on point when comparing the shouting matches of Fox News to the repetitive calmness of India’s talking head news shows. Plus, we get the superb “Je ne sais genocide” pun.
On top of all that, Oliver also shines a light on the asinine state of affairs behind POM Wonderful calling out Coca Cola for false advertisements about its use of pomegranate juice, which rings of idiocy since Pom went through its own legal troubles for basically saying pomegranates were an elixir for immortality. More bullshitty claims from food companies were put to task, and the Last Week Tonight Facebook page released a few “true” labels that they encourage people to print out and affix to actual products before taking pictures of them. Check them out below.
So while it may not be as good as the best examples of political satire on TV, Last Week Tonight is already worlds (or Americas, rather) better than nearly everything but the two Comedy Central series that paved its way. Plus, it’s got a joke about a hologram of a politician promising people toilets in their homes, so it's pretty much the American dream, assuming one is taking dream suppression medication.