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“Last Week Tonight”: A Comic Al-Jazeera America or “The Daily Show” With F-Bombs?

"Last Week Tonight": A Comic Al-Jazeera America or "The Daily Show" With F-Bombs?

John Oliver didn’t sit entirely comfortably in Jon Stewart’s chair when he took over for the “Daily Show” host last summer. Every episode of Oliver’s guest stint opened with a bit reminding the audience he was only a temp, as if promising, “Just hold on. The real guy will be back soon.” But it didn’t take long for him to find his own rhythm, and he outclassed Stewart in the latter’s weakest area: interviews. Although they’ve gotten better since Stewart quashed the reflexive need to go for gags, “The Daily Show’s” third segments are eminently skippable, especially if you’re catching up on episodes a few at a time. But Oliver seemed genuinely engaged: not “hard-hitting” in the performative manner of an on-camera investigative reporter, but tenacious, and, unlike Stewart, unafraid of being disliked — a necessary quality for the “Daily Show’s” correspondents, if not its host. So when Oliver got his own show, the first episode of which can now be watched on YouTube, the question was how much he’d innovate and how much he’d rely on his own personality to transform a familiar format.

The answer, according to the day-after consensus, is decidedly the latter, although there’s some disagreement over whether “Last Week Tonight” is “The Daily Show” with unbleeped curse words or a distinct creation with more leeway to go into subjects in depth. The first episode — and here, even more than with a traditional pilot, the jury will be out for some time — split the difference, offering “Daily Show”-like gags about racist sports-franchise owners and a longish piece on the general election in India that was less about riffing on the news networks’ coverage than bettering it. Part of being a weekly show is not only having more time to burnish material, but needing that material to last longer as well: Especially given the absurd traffic jam of Sunday-night programming, it’s likely viewers will be catching up with Oliver via HBO days after the initial broadcast. Here’s what the critics have to say so far.

Reviews of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”

Hank Steuver, Washington Post

The first episode of “Last Week Tonight” (and, to be clear, it is only the first episode, with plenty of potential and room for improvement) demonstrated little in the way of innovating or improving on “The Daily Show’s” prevailing concept. But here, in HBO’s land of the free (where Bill Maher thrives), Oliver can display an even saltier and more ribald edge. 

James Poniewozik, Time

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.

Tara Ariano, Previously.TV

Honestly, “Last Week Tonight” is basically the same exact show Oliver did as a temp on Comedy Central. There’s a desk piece full of damning clips, then a break; then another one, and another break; and then an interview — and the last of these was improved from the original by being pre-taped, to allow for sharper edits and minimize live studio audience clapter.

Neil Genzlinger, New York Times

All in all, it was pretty standard stuff. But there was one way in which Mr. Oliver stood out: cursing without being bleeped. The first time it happened, it was startling, so accustomed are we to hearing the bleep in his “Daily Show” segments. After that, it was kind of refreshing, especially since he deployed the salty language sparingly. Now if only he would shake up the format a bit.

Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly

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.

David Haglund, Slate

All a viewer can do, really, is ask whether that was an enjoyable half-hour and whether it seemed like a plausible precursor to many more enjoyable half-hours to come. The happy answer to both questions is yes. “Last Week Tonight” may not feel especially new, but it was mostly smart and repeatedly funny, and that is plenty.

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times

The format has become so ubiquitous that these shows now must brand themselves in a way similar to the newscasts they often lampoon. When HBO announced that Oliver, a “Daily Show” regular who spent last summer subbing for Stewart, would be hosting his own show on Sunday nights, all anyone wanted to know was what would he do differently.

The short answer: not all that much.

The long answer (albeit based on a single episode and, therefore, very premature and possibly meaningless but which, as Oliver himself might note, I’m going to give anyway): Like Al Jazeera America, he will ostensibly go deeper, broader and with niftier graphics.

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