Possibly one of the least fair things you can do to a new talk show is judge it by the first episode. Or even the second. Or even the third. So it might be overly generous to give it three months to find its feet, but in the case of HBO's "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver," that amount of time has made something clear -- this is the future of late night.
On the surface, "Last Week Tonight" might not seem too different from the show where Oliver first made his mark: That'd be "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," where Oliver began as a correspondent before subbing in as host last summer, while Stewart directed the independent film "Rosewater."
Oliver's three months behind the desk, which were met with a great deal of critical acclaim, undoubtedly led to him being offered the HBO series, which does feel familiar. "Last Week Tonight" begins with an animated opening sequence, featuring Oliver. Oliver greets viewers as well as his live studio audience from behind a desk. He then proceeds to engage with world events with the help of clips, photoshopped images and broader elements like filmed sketches and in-studio comedy bits.
There are clear differences from "The Daily Show," and the most superficial are due to the show's placement on HBO: There are no commercials, and when Oliver swears, it goes unbleeped. There's also a de-emphasis on guests -- occasionally a well-known face or important political figure will show up, but it's not a pre-requisite for every episode. But otherwise, it might be hard to see what's so special about this approach to politically-laced late night comedy without digging in.
Oliver isn't afraid of the deep dive.
In its second week, "Last Week Tonight" took on the massive issue of the death penalty -- for 10 minutes, Oliver and his writing staff went hard on the current state of capital punishment in this country as well as Oliver's native England. (Oliver offered, as a carrot for watching the entire segment, a video of a tiny hamster eating a tiny burrito. Which pretty much made the whole thing worth it.)
With the freedom to determine segment length, Oliver is able to give serious issues the consideration they deserve. Which is refreshing in the current landscape.
The lack of guests makes a difference.
"Daily Show" usually manages to mix in a healthy selection of authors and political figures with the celebs, leading to the discussion of real issues in what might otherwise seem like an unlikely format. But it's still one way station for actors doing publicity rounds for their latest films and TV shows; a fate "Last Week Tonight" has avoided.
"Last Week" hasn't suffered from a lack of star power -- Bill Nye, Lisa Loeb and Stephen Hawking are just a few of the names to make appearances. But the show's focus has never been needlessly pulled away from the topics it's exploring, for something completely different.
And now, here's something else.
"Last Week" may not have commercial breaks, but it still hews closely to the structure of a traditional half-hour talk show. Rather than ads, though, Oliver ends up tossing to "something else," a short piece of video that highlights some arcane ritual (like the Commonwealth Games) or media meme (like Senator John McCain telling the same one-liner about Russia over and over again).
These segments are well-made, addictive infotainment; the show's only real misstep is not making them available online -- they seem genetically designed to spread.
Otherwise, the show is largely online.
HBO's business model is subscription dependent -- which means that buzz, as opposed to ratings, has a high value. And when you're not afraid of losing ratings, that means a level of fearlessness about distributing your segments on YouTube. We're talking 10 minute chunks of episodes, available for free and featuring the best jokes of each episode.
It also shows an uncanny understanding of the web, enlisting viewers to not just visit its social media sites, but email Russia to protest the loss of satellite-bound space geckos and submit embarrassing photos to the show.
From the very beginning, Oliver has been encouraging audience interaction, which is far from original to late night, but "Daily Show" ("Last Week's" closest analog) has never delved much into it. It's almost as if "Last Week Tonight" has cherry-picked its favorite bits of the landscape for its own purposes.
Speaking of the landscape...
Thirty minutes a week > a half hour every night.
When you think about the number of late night talk shows that air every weeknight, it becomes a bit daunting. Between Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Seth Meyers, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Conan O'Brien, that's seven hours of overlapping topical jokes, timely sketches, wacky celebrity bits, starlet interviews and musical guests airing every night.
Of course, it's the rare and sad human being who would actually watch each and every one of these shows; most pick their poison, sticking with NBC over CBS, Comedy Central over TBS, or -- as is mostly likely the case for the under-30 set -- waiting for the next morning, to see what clips go most viral on YouTube. Why? Because we're talking about seven hours of television airing across four different networks. People need SLEEP.
Meanwhile, it turns out that one half hour of razor-sharp political commentary, delivered by an affable British gentleman on a night where he faces absolutely no competition, is much less daunting.
The long-running joke about "The Daily Show" is that it's where the kids get their news these days. "Last Week Tonight" dispenses entirely with that notion; it knows that any subject it covers will either be old to its viewership or completely unknown to them, and the way it's risen to the challenges presented by that has created some really compelling segments.
The person who should be paying the most attention to what Oliver and his team are up to is Chelsea Handler, who will be bringing her specific brand of late night to Netflix in 2015. What format that programming might take remains unclear -- she's been set the task of creating a globally-facing comedy series using a format that's always thrived on real-time engagement -- but in the meantime, "Last Week Tonight" is blazing a path for this next generation of talk.