Oliver's bare-bones fake-newscast is an extended version of what he did as a Daily Show guest anchor. And that's not a bad thing.
Last summer, John Oliver stepped in for Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show effortlessly–so effortlessly that it became almost a foregone conclusion that he would have his own show before too long, for someone. That someone turned out to be HBO, the show Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. And while I’m not privy to the conversations that took place in signing and developing it, the debut suggested that what HBO asked for was: “That thing you did when you filled in for Stewart? We’ll take that thing, a half hour, once a week. Oh, and you can swear.”
There was no Carlos Danger on last night’s debut–there are new buffoons to kick around now. But the episode otherwise hewed so closely to the fake-news format and Oliver’s past work on TDS that it might well have been called The Weekly Show With John Oliver–an extra, weekend-magazine-length version of what fans have enjoyed on Comedy Central for years.
That is, of course, not a bad thing at all.
The first installment of Last Week Tonight was very much a one-man show, the bulk of it taken up with an extended news-desk segment—like Stewart’s, but with room for more segments and more time to build momentum. (It was such a familiar setup that as it went on something felt strange, and I realized I was unconsciously waiting for, phantom-limb-like, the Comedy Central commercial break.) Counterintuitively for a move to a big-budget network, it’s a stripped-down affair, in some ways like a podcast (i.e., Oliver’s The Bugle).
The fake-cast’s distinctions are its schedule, its length (an actual 30 minutes, not 20-ish with ads), and its host, and Last Week Tonight‘s first outing took advantage of each. Producing one show a week may make last week less timely (as the show’s promos have joked about), but it also lets the staff cherry-pick a week’s worth of news, and they got lucky this time. First, there was the serendipity of Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling (“It turned out to be a rough week for unrepentent racists and recording devices”), and the fact that the Sterling comments broke late in the week gave Oliver first crack at them.
Maybe more important in the long run is that that full half-hour gives Oliver the room to do more than one of those Daily Show-esque deconstructions of news and the media. The India elections segment must have been something Oliver and the writers had been marinating on for a while—he mentioned it to Jack Dickey in TIME’s recent profile—and it formed into a sweeping essay on news-media provincialism, the export of cable-news sensibilities around the globe, and the actual issues at stake in the world’s largest democracy.
All that came filtered, as it did on Oliver’s Daily Show interregnum, through his sharper tone and his globalist, English-outsider perspective. (“Let’s deal with Gandhi first–and I realize this is not the first time that sentence has been said in a British accent.”) Oliver is verbally nimble and able to deliver a joke, but he also, more often than Stewart, is willing to voice genuine passion over his subjects. Here HBO’s content guidelines come in handy: in a segment on misleading food marketing, his response to a claim that frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts will make your kids “rise and shine” was a single, pitch-perfect “Fuck. You.“
The first newscast did feel simultaneously long and breathless, maybe because there was little to vary it or break up the topic segments. I can understand Oliver not wanting to further mimic The Daily Show with correspondent bits. (He served as his own correspondent, in a pointed interview with former NSA head Keith Alexander about the agency’s image, getting the former chief to volunteer the slogan, “The only agency in government that really listens.”) If Oliver wants to keep the show’s bare-bones format, some more varied taped pieces could work (like the Lisa Loeb parody of a twee Oregon ad for its glitch-plagued health exchange), as might some different desk bits that would give him the change to change up the show’s rhythms.
But it was a funny, confident start. I, like I’m guessing a few of you, DVR The Daily Show, watching it sooner when there’s a story I can’t wait to hear Stewart’s take on, later when there’s not. For now, I’ll gladly add Last Week Tonight to that pile and watch to see if it becomes essential. In which case, your Sunday TV glut just got a half-hour longer.