‘Last Week Tonight’ ends season in signature, absurd fashion

HBO news recap series has fun with itself while documenting a messy world

ae-LastWeekTonight-CourtesyWikimediaCommons

John Oliver brought season five of his comedy-news recap show "Last Week Tonight" to a signature close, combining flippant humor with more serious commentary.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“One of their greatest appeals is making a complicated world simple,” said host John Oliver on the topic of authoritarian world leaders, the main story in tonight’s season five finale of the late-night news recap series. In a similar vein, one of “Last Week Tonight’s” greatest appeals is making a complicated world funny.

HBO’s weekly program starring former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver has — from its inception — reinvented the modern talk show with its potent melange of dark humor, legitimate journalism and innovatively hilarious real-world stunts. The penultimate weekly airing notably revealed that the entire current season, running since February, has been subtly making mock-praise subliminal references to Scientology. The staff and writing team of “Last Week” are clearly having fun, and the the attention to detail in each gag is made more satisfying by the absurd lengths their talent and budget will go to for the stunt.

The world, more than ever, is a messy and ridiculous place. It would be all too easy for Oliver to pick the low-hanging fruit and exclusively make fun of what everyone else is mocking on Twitter or on Jimmy Fallon. “Last Week Tonight” sets itself apart by going the extra mile. Oliver, like the Twitter paparazzi and Fallon, mocks blunders such as President Donald Trump forgetting the name of a town devastated by California’s wildfires which he was just shown. He compares Brexit promises contrasted with reality to a unicorn versus a horse with an ice cream cone on its head. 

But while other talk shows are content to wade in amusing reflections of televised silliness, “Last Week Tonight” goes deeper when addressing its meat and potatoes flagship topics — the “main stories,” as Oliver calls them. Sunday night, Oliver covered the sobering rise of authoritarianism and made it funny — “What the f—k is happening to the world and why?”

Oliver managed to do so without even mentioning Trump until discussing the important international parallels to the current president first, such as President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and newly-elected populist leader Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. With the current political landscape, traditional media appears to be almost exclusively American-centric. Oliver is a breath of fresh air in bringing international perspective as a British expat to “Last Week Tonight’s” topics.

Season five of “Last Week Tonight” was surprising each week with its fusion of substantive reporting and boldly demonstrative stunts, from opening a crisis-care pregnancy center in order to highlight how dangerously easy it is to mislead women seeking abortion to covering Chinese President Xi Jinping honestly, resulting in all of HBO being temporarily blocked in China. Less seriously but equally humorously, segments showing Parliament — an illegal offense for television shows in the United Kingdom — were replaced with actor Gilbert Gottfried unpleasantly reading 3-star Yelp reviews for British viewers.

Once the serious talk of Sunday night was finished, Oliver ensured this season of “Last Week Tonight” would have a memorable ending. First, the montage “Now This” segments typically highlighting local news blunders playfully subverted itself. “Every week I read these stupid title cards but I’m capable of so much more … ” the narrator voice read, “and now, the cold inky blackness of space. How do you like that, a—holes?”

Then, continuing the show’s theme of buying absurdly useless objects — like wax presidential replicas from last season — HBO’s team bought Russell Crowe memorabilia from the actor’s divorce action, including a leather jockstrap worn in 2005’s “Cinderella Man.” The staff sent these items to the few remaining Blockbuster stores in the country in a bid to generate some ridiculous news stories, but unfortunately the leather jockstrap was lost while being delivered.

It was only appropriate, then, for the “Last Week Tonight” team to use its considerable budget to produce an action movie parody trailer showcasing the heroic efforts of actor Armie Hammer and the wax presidents to recover a stolen jockstrap. The joke was made more absurd by the sheer resources and production value put into it. The slickly polished “The Wax and the Furious” would not be out of place in a summer blockbuster lineup of teasers.

Such a balance of humor and news is not easy to achieve, and inevitably there will be compromise. Oliver’s program and talk shows like it have — for many millennials — become the de facto way to get news, even as the show mocks itself for its out-of-date weekly format. The duality of informing and entertaining is tricky, and critics are justified in pointing out the partisanship on display in late night talk shows. 

Dry, objective presentation of information does not sense the world on fire. But calls for advocacy do, like urging viewers to vote or — as was done last season — petitioning complaints on the FCC website as net neutrality was being repealed. “Last Week Tonight” manages to be equal parts informative weekly recap and edgy advocacy powerhouse. Sometimes it all feels like preaching to the choir for viewers who might disagree with the stances taken by Oliver, even if those views are well articulated and smartly presented.

But even if “Last Week Tonight” is not the most serious or unbiased way to stay up to date or the world-changing show it aspires to be it is — at the very least — a profoundly entertaining take on world events that never fails to surprise with its creativity. Next February cannot come soon enough.

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