TV Review: ‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’

'Last Week Tonight With John Oliver'

Anyone who admired John Oliver on “The Daily Show” – including his fill-in stint during Jon Stewart’s hiatus – couldn’t be surprised to see him courted for his own vehicle. Yet HBO wasn’t an obvious choice, and the pay service seemed to miss an opportunity by failing to pair his topical satire – which premiered Sunday, taped so close to air as to prevent previews – with Bill Maher’s show, a scheduling no-brainer. That aside, “Last Week Tonight” was perfectly fine but did nothing to deflect being construed as a “Daily Show” knockoff – the fifth episode Stewart doesn’t do, only with F-bombs.

Truth be told, one has to wonder if Oliver wasn’t a tad premature in leaping at HBO’s offer, given Stephen Colbert’s move to CBS. At Comedy Central, he could have slid into “The Colbert Report” slot with scarcely a ripple, having become the obvious heir while keeping Stewart’s seat warm.

By contrast, leaving for the more permissive confines of pay cable fosters certain expectations, whereas everything about “Last Week Tonight” felt like another spin of the latenight-satire wheel, with nary a new groove in it.

Not surprisingly, Oliver weighed in on the racist comments by renegade rancher Cliven Bundy and those attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, the Pope and Oregon’s botched healthcare site.

He also devoted an extended stretch to the U.S. media essentially ignoring the election in India, segueing into a very clever bit on how India’s media exhibits the same excesses as America’s cable news. And his closing piece on trying to rebrand the NSA was equally well done.

Oliver has the benefit of additional content, of course – without having to worry about advertising, and no time-filling studio interview – but that doesn’t necessarily work to the advantage of this sort of exercise, even with a few short taped pieces to break up the flow. The host also appeared on shaky ground by coyly encouraging viewers to slap derisive labels on products in stores and take a picture of them – one of those cheeky gestures likely to be embraced only by the I’ll-do-any-stupid-thing-TV-tells-me contingent.

Oliver is clearly a talent. But after a first taste of “Last Week Tonight,” there’s a nagging sense he forfeited a promotion at Comedy Central to become a smaller fish in a much bigger pond. As for HBO, as the rich sometimes do, the channel snapped up a shiny bauble, without really having much need for it.

TV Review: 'Last Week Tonight With John Oliver'

(Series; HBO, Sun. April 27, 11 p.m.)


Produced by Avalon Television.


Executive producers, John Oliver, Tim Carvell, James Taylor, Jon Thoday; producer, Liz Stanton. 30 MIN.


Host: John Oliver

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 26

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Amy Jones says:

    This author has no idea what he is talking about, Oliver is better than the Daily show ATM. Ya he is left liberal skewed but he’s freaking hilarious and gets you thinking too, just like Jon Stewart. Everyone at work talks about how funny Oliver is and how much better the Daily show would have been if they kept him.

  2. I just don’t get this guy’s abilities other than knowing what to say to get attention. All of his material comes from one-side of the political isle. I know I just lost two out of the three people actually reading the comments, but my best comparison would be to Dennis Miller: once he decided to be 100% right wing, he just wasn’t as funny. It’s the same with David Letterman. i will say that Mr. Oliver is definitely one who knows where the bread is buttered. Lastly, props go to Variety for giving a review that was less than a sickening love fest.

  3. slowfoodbr says:

    Just bring on Andy and make it “the Bugle 2.0: Video newspaper for a digital world.”

  4. G.E. Bragg says:

    Clearly the writer has his head up his a_s. The Daily Show is an incubator for great shows and talent; this is yet another one. Loved every second of it. As one commenter suggested, why not four or five days a week? Thanks again, John Stewart.

  5. bradq1015 says:

    The writer of this article seems to know something we don’t, namely, that John Oliver had the knowledge to choose between Colbert’s spot and a spot on HBO. I don’t think he did, but I’m not in the business and don’t know if that’s the case. But, I can say that, as Daily Show-esque as the first show was, I’m very anxious to see where Oliver takes the show. I think we should give him time to figure that out, at least more time than Conan got on The Tonight Show. And, from what I saw of the first episode, I’m wishing he could do a 4-5 night stint, like The Daily Show, or Colbert Report, and have meaningful guests on that he interviews. And correspondents in the field that are not himself (even though I loved that interview segment with the former NSA director at the end).

  6. David P. says:

    It will take a few weeks for this show to find its groove. Oliver seemed to be pushing the jokes too hard and impatiently, afraid to let laughs play out enough. Too often the righteous indignation angle felt forced and the expletives oddly calculated rather than cathartic. Interview segment was the best part. I look forward to seeing how this talented chap finds the right persona and format.

  7. JMac says:

    I thought he was great. Amazing. I will be watching.

  8. Larry says:

    The reason a lot of the media is ho humming the show is because he is knocking the medias balls off because you are a bunch of useless corporate flunkies………………..Believe me the people get it………..

  9. Jacques Strappe says:

    Even though the Colbert/Letterman announcement came after Oliver landed at HBO, I suspect a lot of discussion was happening behind the scenes between all these guys, including David Letterman and John Stewart long before it was made public that Colbert was leaving to replace Letterman. We’ll probably never know who knew what and when, though. I thought Oliver’s debut was okay (so we have to pay to hear “fuck” spoken several times which just adds to the hilarity?) but certainly not ground breaking. It does feel exactly like a knockoff of The Daily Show with f-bombs. If this is the best HBO can do with a talent like Oliver, then I suppose we’ll all just have to live with it even though it would have felt more natural being paired with The Daily Show on Comedy Central. in my opinion.

  10. Joan Paul says:

    John Oliver is the bomb. His views on our media culture have to be digested slowly. I believe he will grow into a huge hit. Thank you John and HBO!

  11. Jake says:

    Following a similar format to The Daily Show was definitely the safe thing to do, but given that Oliver’s guest hosting stint on TDS turned into essentially a summer-long audition for his own show, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. It also doesn’t take away from how well executed this premiere was. I would expect Last Week Tonight to grow into it’s own given enough time, and I’m definitely enjoying what we’ve got so far. What I would like to see is for this show to take a slightly more global approach to the stories it presents, something which was hinted at in the India election / news media segment. While not particularly original, Last Week Tonight was entertaining nonetheless, and something to add to my weekly viewing.

  12. HBO Fan says:

    This review is useless!! It doesn’t come to any sort of definitive conclusion regarding the show. The review is a completely vague “was perfectly fine’ recap of selective parts of the show.
    Is this reviewer an intern just learning the trade… or is he to busy playing with his i-phone while watching a show that they are suppose to write a review on?
    The whole segment on POM Wonderful vs Coke-a-cola wasn’t even mentioned. (and that was one of the best parts)
    Does the esteemed reviewer like the show or not? His conclusion is just a
    lament that Oliver should have waited to take another job and that HBO signed a smart talent.
    That strategy didn’t seem to do Bill Maher any harm.
    I watched the show and enjoyed most of it. I would recommend it to others and will tune in again to see how it evolves.

  13. Beat Me Up says:

    Whoever he is he seems pretty intelligent.

  14. Erin Morris says:

    I think there are all the parts there for a successful show but assembling it will be the tricky part. He needs time to figure it out and we need to give him that time.

    This article here also talks about what late night talk shows do right and wrong:

    • Don Benn says:

      This is Oliver doing what Oliver does best. The 30 minute format feels like “home”……but goes by way too fast. I am admittedly a big fan (and am sorry that he didn’t have a crystal ball re the Letterman/Colbert future)……but as this is a review of last nights show……please sir, I’d like some more.

  15. Liz says:

    I enjoyed it. One can’t be too critical with the first show because there will certainly be tweeks as the series progresses. I will certainly be tuning in every Sunday night.

    Had the whole Letterman announcement come sooner, I think that John Oliver would have been the likely choice to take over with his own take on the news. However, thems are the breaks. Once can’t predict these things.

  16. John says:

    As an Oregonian, I’m perfectly willing to make fun of my state, and laugh at the occasional ineptitude, but I felt that Oliver/his writers went a little too far, and a little mean-spirited with their mocking of Oregon. For one thing, I got Health Care by way of the Oregon Health Care site, as did everyone else in my family. So the site worked for at least five people in the state.

    Aside from being a little off-put by the fact that the first five minutes of his first show were spent mocking the state where I am proud to have been born (and proud to still live) in a rather over-the-top (and to some extent mean-spirited) manner, I did enjoy the show.

    Oh, and in Oregon, you don’t her ukeleles wherever you go. We’ve got a lot wider variety of stringed instruments than that. And percussive instruments as well.

  17. Dmk says:

    Thought he was overrated in his fill in for Stewart last summer.

  18. Brett says:

    One thing I think this article misses on, is Letterman hadn’t announced his retirement yet. Had he done that and Oliver known that Colbert’s spot would be open 4 months after he accepted the offer then it may have changed things. This article made it seem like Oliver knew that Colbert’s spot was up for grabs and decided to go to HBO anyways. Which had it been open he still may have gone regardless, but I don’t think the article made that clear enough.

    • LMG7 says:

      Really? I thought it was pretty clear in the article that Oliver didn’t know, just that the author wish he had.

  19. Arthur Greenwald says:

    I don’t think you’re giving Oliver credit for some very sharp writing right out of the gate. Fans of Oliver ‘a (and fellow Brit Andy Saltzman’s) terrific podcast, THE BUGLE, know to look forward to increasingly sharp commentary with an edge that often surpasses Stewart at his best.

  20. Kev says:

    It didn’t break any new ground, but was still funny. Had an angrier edge than I’m used to seeing from Oliver, which is okay but unexpected. I think he’s going to want to pick up on his sketches a little bit, so as to drive a wedge of separation between himself and Stewart.

    I also want to see him play off of someone else in-studio from time to time, as I think a change of face can help break up the segment-obscuring aspects of commercial-free TV.

    I look forward to where he looks to go from here, because his material was spot-on hilarious. Now he’s got to stretch into his new role and earn some room to be comfortable.

  21. Faye says:

    Disappointing first show.

  22. Rich says:

    The show sucked. it was not funny.

  23. Anni says:

    I love Oliver and thought he did a great job, though I do wish the set looked a little less like those of Dave/Jimmy/Jimmy etc

More TV News from Variety