The past two years have been very good to John Oliver. Following an excellent spell behind Jon Stewart’s desk in the summer of 2013, Oliver was presented with the opportunity to host his own show on HBO and he seized it with both hands.
At first blush, it seemed that HBO simply wanted a bit of The Daily Show’s action, but it did not take long for Oliver to distinguish his show from his alma mater (so to speak). Oliver’s Last Week Tonight returns this Sunday. The promos are promising “More of the Same!” and fans couldn’t be happier.
Oliver was always a reliable presence on The Daily Show, filling in the gap left by Stephen Colbert as “Vice-Captain of the Team” (a role now seemingly shared by married couple Sam Bee and Jason Jones), and Stewart clearly adored the man. Last Week obviously owes many creative debts to Stewart’s program, both in format and tone, but Oliver has made the show his own in unique ways that could really only have happened on HBO.
First, broadcasting on a network that doesn’t rely on commercials gives him the freedom to take on corporations that The Daily Show (or Comedy Central) might fear alienating. There is also the advantage of unrestricted language and content use (and no one can cuss like a Brit…see, for instance, everything about the Russian Space Sex Geckos). But it’s the “deep dive” that has become the hallmark of his show and has become the key distinguishing feature from TDS.
In the build to up to his show’s launch, Oliver stated that he was using 60 Minutes as a bit of a blue print, and it’s clear that he relishes the chance to really tackle the intricacies of an issue rather than simply try to squeeze it all into a snarky two-minute segment. And while the venerable old dinosaur of television news is an obvious inspiration, it is really the way Oliver has been able to replicate the experience of being “sucked down the rabbit hole” that has given him mass appeal in the Internet age.
Anyone with even a passing experience on the web knows this experience even if they don’t know the term. You open your browser meaning to find out a simple fact and suddenly find yourself spending two hours reading up on, say, the Celtic influence on Arthurian legend, the history of Pykrete or what the ‘86 Mets are doing now.
While Oliver’s net neutrality episode (his fifth) has clearly had the largest impact, it is episode 18 that really demonstrates the inner workings of the writer’s room and the appeal of the show. Oliver begins a bit about the Miss America pageant, and makes it very clear that the original intention was just to spend a minute or two on the event before moving onto a bigger story, but the more the staff dug, the more they found…until it consumed the episode.
With the slightly bemused expression of a man coming out of a fever dream and wondering what happened, Oliver lifts a mountain of paper work from under his desk, the results of a week’s worth of Freedom of Information Act requests to the various organizations involved. He then shares his findings and the audience gets sucked in just like the staff did.
It is one thing to say, “The Miss America pageant is retrograde, sexist and massively corrupt.” The typical jaded viewer will shrug and think “sure.” It is quite another thing to be presented with a plethora of phony scholarships, shell organizations and questionable philanthropic efforts that illustrate, detail by detail, just how messed up the pageant is. By the end of the episode, the viewer is as out of breath, shocked and confused as Oliver. It was great television.
So, on Sunday, as he rides back into the spotlight, and with the news no less wacky and horrifying than ever, the expectations will be ridiculously high. Oliver seems up to the task.
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