‘Last Week Tonight’ is a trenchant addition to the world of satirical news

oliver4_27_14aBy JIM SABATASO | STAFF

[A version of this review appears in the June 12, 2014, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

Don’t call it fake news. At best, that’s a lazy way to pigeonhole shows like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. At worst, it allows the “real” news shows to passive aggressively dismiss them — a defensive reaction to their own journalistic failings.

But calling them fake is wholly inaccurate. While the stories may be delivered with laughs, they are, at their core, not made up or false. Sure there’s some spin — and an identifiable partisan leaning that can be misleading at times — but how is that any different than Fox News or MSNBC? At least Stewart and Colbert cop to the fact they are playing fast and loose with the facts.

There is catharsis in these shows and the satirical world in which they operate. Sometimes, when confronted with another hypocritical politician, another meaningless war, yet another mass shooting, all you can do is laugh. These shows are not a replacement for news — anyone who says he gets all his news from Jon Stewart is likely as much as of a dummy as one who follows only Limbaugh or O’Reilly — but they are vital supplementary texts.

More than jokes, these shows provide essential media criticism. The 24-hour news cycle is a circus of noise, demagoguery, and bad reporting. Amid that fervor, it’s worthwhile to have programs that call bullshit on it all, that push the viewer to think a bit harder and exercise some healthy skepticism.

Enter Last Week Tonight, HBO’s new weekly news program hosted by John Oliver. Formerly of The Daily Show, Oliver showed himself a capable and credible lead anchor last summer when he filled in for Jon Stewart.

As a Daily Show correspondent, Oliver was a pro, showing his ability to sell even the most absurd bit and improvise on the fly in interviews and pre-taped packages. Behind the desk, Oliver was a natural — comfortable, charming, self-deprecating, and aggressive enough to cut deep should the need arise.

At the time, it appeared that Oliver had proven himself as a fitting heir to Stewart or Colbert. Had Letterman announced his retirement sooner, Oliver may have edged out fellow Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore for the 11:30 slot denying audience some much needed diversity in late night. (Fortunately, we now get the best of both worlds.)

So is there room for Oliver? Absolutely. Five episodes in, Last Week Tonight has developed its own voice, and while much of the beats are reminiscent of The Daily Show, the show does successfully stand on its own.

But Oliver brings an international — albeit still white and male — perspective to Last Week Tonight. Fortunately, he manages to keep his privilege in check. He opens a segment about the recent presidential election in India, stating, “So let’s deal with Gandhi first,” which he promptly follows up with, “And I realize that’s not the first time that sentence has been said in a British accent.”

It’s a winning throwaway line and not-so-subtle nod to his British roots that Stewart and Colbert could not have delivered. The India election segment was a lengthy, well-reported and entertaining report on a major election in the biggest democracy on the planet that went largely unreported by Western media.

Subsequent episodes have led with international stories that often have little direct impact on the US. Training the show’s focus outside US borders is a smart move, one that distinguishes the show from its peers while also countering to the ugly American stereotype by viewers that the should care about these stories.

The weekly format allows for more depth. The four-show-per-weeks schedule of The Daily Show and Colbert leaves less room to be picky about what to report. With only 30 minutes a week, Last Week Tonight has its own limitations — smaller stories like Sarah Palin’s latest gaffe (thankfully) won’t make the cut — but that choosiness results in longer pieces that feel more like evening news reporting than a series of rapid-fire jokes. Indeed, the joke-to-news ratio may be lower than Stewart and Colbert, but that doesn’t diminish the humor or quality of the show.

This being HBO, Oliver has the freedom to pull fewer punches than his basic cable cousins. F-bombs aren’t ubiquitous, but they’re at the ready. (Though this does raise an interesting comic paradox: Is the bleep funnier than the word itself? Discuss.)

Through it all Oliver wears his social conscience on his sleeve. While Stewart and Colbert do the same, Oliver goes bigger, opting for spectacle to drive his point home. His statistically representative debate about climate change packed the studio with 97 scientists to three climate change deniers.

And freedom from advertisers means Oliver can exercise his conscience and critique corporations with impunity. A segment on General Motors’ recent vehicle recall culminates in a biting commercial parody that Comedy Central’s parent company Viacom would have spiked in half a second.

In segment on net neutrality, Oliver unloaded on Comcast and Time Warner’s corporate bullying, as well as called out the disturbing coziness of the government and the telecom lobby. Oliver’s resulting call to action in support of net neutrality crashed the FCC website’s comments system within 12 hours or airing.

Last Week Tonight may be arriving just in time. Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update is a toothless shade of its former self. Colbert is trading in his pundit pants for the comparatively safer confines of the Late Show. And while Stewart may still be crushing it nightly, The Daily Show is nonetheless feeling a bit long in the tooth. John Oliver brings a welcome burst of energy and zeal to the world of satirical news. Here’s hoping he keeps it up.

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