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TV Watch: How John Oliver Beat Stewart, Colbert, and Broadcast News at Their Own Games

TV Watch: How John Oliver Beat Stewart, Colbert, and Broadcast News at Their Own Games

Indian elections. Net neutrality. Argentina’s debt crisis. No, I’m not reading the latest issue of The Economist. These are three of the subjects covered by HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” since its April debut, enough time to realize that Oliver’s not satisfied with challenging former Comedy Central colleagues Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for satirical primacy. He’s going after broadcast news, too. And he’s winning.

Critics reviewing “Last Week Tonight” initially mistook Oliver as a premium-cable heir to Stewart, with several echoing James Poniewozik’s comment, in Time, that the series premiere “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.'” But as the summer wore on, “Last Week Tonight” surpassed “TDS” and “The Colbert Report” in both brilliance and ambition. It’s not “fake news,” it’s real news — and it’s hilarious.

Though “TDS” and “The Colbert Report” mimic the style of nightly network broadcasts and cable channel bloviating, respectively, both generally offer more media criticism than information on world affairs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the two series are starting to feel shopworn — victims, perhaps, of their own success. As “fake news” proliferates, the bracing novelty of “TDS” and “The Colbert Report” steadily diminishes. The former, with Stewart’s impassioned intelligence and a deep bench of talented correspondents, remains intermittently terrific, though after 15 years on air the host has yet to develop even the most rudimentary of interviewing skills (listening); the latter, in which Colbert’s performance consumes so much space there’s no room left for anything else, will end its run when he takes over “The Late Show” from David Letterman next year.

Freed from chasing the day’s top story, Oliver bests his fellow funny men by tackling broadcast journalism on its own terms rather than simply poking fun at its excesses. On closer inspection, the design of “Last Week Tonight” is as much “HBO Weekly News” as “The Weekly Show,” combining and modifying elements of TV news and its most popular parodies to stake out fresh territory for both. If you’re at all interested in the future of either, “Last Week Tonight” is essential viewing.

Wringing every advantage from his unconstrained, uninterrupted half-hour, Oliver packs each episode with a sublime blend of news, commentary, satire, sketch comedy, and the odd interview, sewn together by his particular brand of jovial fervor. “Last Week Tonight” usually begins and ends with witty briefs on a range of topics (equal pay for women, Russian geckos in space), the best of which once described a celebration of Russia’s annexation of Crimea as “look[ing] like Leni Riefenstahl hired a color-blind pyromaniac to choreograph a Spinal Tap-themed Cirque du Soleil performance.” There’s media criticism, too, though mercifully condensed into the transitions between segments. “And Now This” reduces the subject matter of “TDS” or “The Colbert Report” to perhaps a minute, laying bare the absurdity of what passes for “news” simply by calling attention to it: a short series of clips depicting “Newscasters Questioning Whether They Should Be Covering The Stories They Are, At That Very Moment, Covering” is exactly what the title promises, and it’s plenty damning on its own.

The beating heart of “Last Week Tonight,” however, is what’s made the series a viral sensation. (You’ve likely seen headlines proclaiming, for example, “WATCH: John Oliver Destroys GM” — and if you haven’t, you should at least watch John Oliver literally destroy a piñata to illustrate Internet hyperbole in the clip below.) Each week, Oliver delivers a thorough, spirited examination of a major national or international story, working over several angles and elucidating the facts in the process: 15 minutes on Ferguson, 15 on nuclear security, 16 on payday loans (video below). As Pew studies have shown, this sort of depth is vanishingly rare even for real television news, much less “fake news,” entering terrain usually reserved for Rachel Maddow’s A-block or “PBS NewsHour.” After commercial breaks and teases, by contrast, the August 25 edition of ABC’s “World News with Diane Sawyer” devoted a total of 19 minutes to “news,” including reports on the Video Music Awards’ “winners and losers” and a marriage proposal in Britain.

“When something is this popular and this prevalent,” Oliver noted in his cutting appraisal of payday loans, “you owe it to yourself to find out what it is.” The same could be said of “fake news” and fake “news,” both of which “Last Week Tonight” finds wanting. As ratings for the networks’ nightly news programs continue to slip and Comedy Central’s stalwart pair keeps flogging the Fox News horse, Oliver successfully critiques “the news” and outshines its satirists by respecting the value of information better than either. Admittedly, “Last Week Tonight” doesn’t expend large amounts of money, time, and effort producing original reporting, nor does it need to attract the ratings of “TDS” or “The Colbert Report” to stay afloat. But if the game as it’s currently played results in 19 minutes of bear attacks, shark sightings, and white flags on the Brooklyn Bridge — or 19 minutes ridiculing same — choosing Oliver’s remarkable half hour of hard news and hard laughs is a no-brainer. He’s in a class of his own.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” airs Sundays at 11 pm ET/PT on HBO.

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