The fear with Last Week Tonight is that it’s The Daily Show except once a week — a staggered timeline that would rob the basic news-punning format of its intrinsic topical punch. John Oliver’s new show has the familiar rhythms of the show that bore him: Description of news item, comical montage of actual news networks covering said news in an increasingly hysterical fashion, follow-up punchline. Oliver has been with The Daily Show since 2006; he’s one of the longest-serving correspondents, behind Stephen Colbert and the eternal Bee/Jones double act. The first episode of his HBO series didn’t stray far from the Stewart mothership, stylistically. He might be on a premium cable network, but he actually swore less than Stewart, who has made a running joke out of Comedy Central’s basic-cable bleeps.
But the hope with Last Week Tonight is also that it’s The Daily Show once a week — and that the aforementioned staggered timeline could result in a half-hour of television that is simultaneously tighter and more ambitious, that the extra production time leads to sharper gags but also the ability to present more context. The whole comedic style of The Daily Show has become an essential part of the news landscape; just look at Ronan Farrow Daily, a fascinating and horrific nominally “real” news program which is sort of like The Daily Show written entirely by smart people who don’t realize they aren’t funny enough to write for The Daily Show.
So Last Week Tonight had plenty of funny throwaway lines. (About besieged Clippers owner Donald Sterling: “He’s like a walking ‘Before’ photo!” About Pope Benedict: “It cannot be easy to be the fourth most popular pope in the room, especially when two of the popes are dead.”) Oliver created a short viral-bait video about the collapse of the Oregon healthcare site, featuring Lisa Loeb angrily singing to Oregonians: “You Stupid Oregon Idiots/You Human Pinterest Boards.”
But what really grabbed me about Last Week Tonight was the long segment in the middle about the upcoming India Election. Oliver chastised the American media for its complete inability to cover the biggest election in human history; but Oliver also managed to come up with a handy rundown of the important facts. It wasn’t dry (a press photo showing Rahul Gandhi earned him the nickname “The Indian Han Solo”) but it also didn’t shy away from the not-immediately-farcical aspects of the election (frontrunner Narendra Modi’s possible role in the 2002 Gujarat riots.)
This whole segment felt very different from the typical Daily Show news rundown. There were clips from BBC news and from a New York Times video. Oliver seemed genuinely passionate about the issue, and passionate about the idea that people should care: “We may be throwing state dinners for this guy.” To generalize rampantly, The Daily Show makes fun of how the media covers the things it covers. At its best, Last Week Tonight seemed more focused on angrily criticizing the media for what it doesn’t cover.
You got the same vibe from a later segment, focusing on the Supreme Court Case of Pom Wonderful v. Coca Cola. Out of a dispute between a kamillion-dollar company and a kabillion-dollar company, Oliver created an elaborate tangential riff that led in several different directions. There was historical context, with court documents dating back three decades; there was a brief history of fraudulent claims on cereal boxes (Cocoa Krispies help “support your child’s immunity!”); and there was a final social media call-out to viewers, sending them to the show’s websites to download stickers that Oliver loudly insisted they not put on cereal boxes.
If I’m talking about The Daily Show so much in this review, it’s because that show is very clearly Oliver’s spirit animal. This isn’t The Colbert Report, which broke away decisively from its inspiration just by virtue of Colbert’s farcical persona. Last Week Tonight ended by leaving the studio and going to a pre-taped interview — in Daily Show terms, Oliver is both host and correspondent.
But more often than not, Last Week Tonight suggested the sharpest possible version of its inspiration. Interviewing Keith Alexander, the former NSA Director, Oliver managed to get in some solid questions about the much-despised agency’s practices. But he also suggested possibilities for rebranding, including The Washington Redskins (“a slightly less-tainted brand than yours”), adorable little pet Mr. Tiggles, and an attractive internet-boyfriend dude named Trevor. Insanely, Alexander played along: At one point, he suggested that a motto for the NSA could be “The only agency in government that really listens,” which is funny and also Orwellian.
The set of Last Week Tonight looks like a lot of late-night sets: John Oliver sat at a desk in front of a fake skyline. But something about Oliver’s fake-skyline caught my eye. It’s composed of recognizable monuments from cities around the world: The Washington Monument, the Taj Mahal, the Empire State Building. The buildings are weirdly more detailed than they have to be, more colorful than the usual late-night backdrop-silhouettes. At its best, the whole of Last Week Tonight felt the same way. The format might be familiar, but there’s more detail, a greater sense of context.
I’m not sure the world needs another late night show, or another political-comedy show. And 11 PM on Sunday is a strange time for either (although you could argue that it’s a savvy programming move, now that Sunday has become The Night We All Watch Too much TV.) Last Week Tonight should feel like an experiment. But Night One felt almost fully-formed, as if Oliver has spent his Daily Show tutelage making a list of everything that works — and everything he wanted to do just a little bit differently.