After moderate anticipation, HBO debuted its brand-new comedy news show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, on Sunday evening (and if you missed it, the full episode is now available on YouTube). Oliver's summer 2013 run as the substitute host of The Daily Show while Jon Stewart was off directing a film meant that we already had a pretty good idea of the lovable Brit's hosting style, but hey, it's HBO! Oliver can do pretty much whatever he wants with the format! Last Week Tonight has the opportunity to reinvent late-night comedy news shows, right? Well, after the first episode, the answer to that question is a firm "no"—but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Here's what worked and what didn't work about the premiere.
BEST: Extended opening credits
Hey man, it's not TV, it's HBO. And you know what that means: a longish opening credit sequence! Last Week Tonight's credits are only about 25 seconds long, but for a half-hour show, even one without commercials, that's a moderate chunk of real estate. The good news is that the credits are sort of weird and visually striking. I really like the fonts! Let's talk about fonts!
BEST: It looks NOOICE
If you don't want to talk about fonts, let's talk about how great the set and the desk look, because they look great. HBO's vast resources also mean that Last Week Tonight will be able to put together pre-tapes like the brief musical bit involving Lisa Loeb, and they won't end up looking like complete garbage. Location shooting, however minimal, FTW.
BEST: No introductions needed
Oliver's been behind this kind of desk before, and he showed some veteran smarts by jumping directly into the show without talking about "how much this means" to him or taking the time to thank the audience or HBO or Jon Stewart. Just right into the news and the jokes. Good by me.
BEST/WORST: It's The Daily Show, you guys
The comparisons are inevitable, and Last Week Tonight certainly isn't running away from them. If you like watching a white guy hunch over a desk while he tells you what's wrong with the media and the American political system—with a whole lotta clips and edited gags thrown in for good measure—you're in for a treat. That's not necessarily a bad thing. HBO hired Oliver for a reason, this was just the first episode, yada yada yada. But it'd be cool if, just once, one of these late-night dudes tried something different. It's HBO; the opportunities are basically limitless.
WORST: The show isn't really sure what to do with its segment breaks
Last Week Tonight seems so beholden to a Daily Show framework that the premiere integrated brief edited clip packages that didn't involve Oliver as a way to break up the action, and to fill the space where commercials would go if Last Week Tonight were on broadcast or basic cable. The bits in this episode—one about John McCain telling the same joke six times, and another about the NFL's creepy/awful treatment of cheerleaders—were fine, but again, they pointed to how traditional the show is, at least at the outset.
BEST: The jokes are pretty sharp
It's standard stuff, no doubt, but some of Oliver's lines were very strong. Calling "alleged" racist NBA owner Donald Sterling "a walking before photo" and telling Oregon "we get it Oregon, you people live in a cartoon" worked well. Other choice lines: "Bold move, coming out as pro toilet" and "Frosted Mini-Wheats: literally better than nothing."
BEST: Oliver can definitely conduct an interview
The host's chat with General Keith Alexander had an awkward energy to it because Alexander is kind of an awkward guy, but Oliver went at him while still being funny. Last Week Tonight's extra running time gives the show a little more to work with as far as the various segments go, but as of the premiere, it paid off the most in Oliver's time with his guest. I'll be curious to see whether he does any live interviews in the future.
WORST: Hey, we can curse!
Don't get me wrong y'all, I love cursing. A well-timed F-word can really punch up a joke. But let's hope the show and its host doesn't get too carried away with the novelty of being able to say "FUCK YOU" to Pop Tarts every week.
BEST: Good story balance
This first episode managed to mix it up as far as stories go, tackling both the obvious (Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy; the NSA) and the less obvious (the failures of Oregon's healthcare website, the election in India, a court battle between Pom Juice and Coke). Unsurprisingly, the coverage of the less beaten-to-death stories was more interesting, and Oliver seemed more engaged in it than he did with the low-hanging fruit. I liked how he underscored that people should really care about the Indian election; that kind of minor advocacy is interesting.
BEST: Social media engagement
Encouraging viewers to print off smartass labels and apply them to real food products in stores is a wonderful idea, as is asking them to share this activity via Facebook or Twitter. There's a lot that talk shows can do with social media, as hosts like Jimmy Fallon have proven. But I want to see the follow-up. Are we going to show the results on the show, or just on its respective social media accounts?
All in all, this was a rock-solid first episode for Last Week Tonight. I still have hope that the show will expand its horizons a bit as time moves on, if only because the late-night landscape would benefit from something different. Nevertheless, if this is all Last Week Tonight ever is, that'll be just fine. Oliver's great, and the material will always be there.
What'd you think of Last Week Tonight? Will you tune in next week for Episode 2?