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.