A list of things Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is not: It’s not The Daily Show With John Oliver, despite the fact that the bulk of its premiere episode features Oliver dissecting the news and the news media from behind a stylish anchor’s desk, just as he did when he temporarily fronted The Daily Show in the summer of 2013. It’s not Oliver’s answer to The Colbert Report, because even though he’s the primary face and voice of the program, he’s not playing a character—this is the part-jovial, part-acerbic, all-upfront Oliver viewers have come to know as a roving “reporter,” podcaster, and stand-up comedian. It’s also not going to be the most timely satirical outlet on cable, a truth driven home by the show’s pre-premiere ad campaign and the fact that one of the first stories it tackled is an election that began on April 7 and won’t conclude until May 12. (Though the show’s weekend premiere means Oliver was telling jokes about the Donald Sterling scandal before anyone else.)
That story just might be Last Week Tonight’s first step toward finding its identity in a crowded late-night field. By pointing out that the American mainstream media has largely ignored the ongoing Indian general election—and then backing that up with a McLaughlin Group excerpt in which John McLaughlin and crew yak about not yakking about prime minister candidates Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi—Oliver throws down a gauntlet. Without a 24-hour news cycle dictating its coverage and enough time to dig into complicated stories of potentially global consequence, Last Week Tonight can, more effectively, thumb its nose at newsmakers worldwide. The vocabulary’s the same (like The Daily Show’s main Jon, Oliver occasionally veers off script to riff on a story’s visual aids), but the new show is multilingual.
Multi-discipline, too: In calling out the factual inaccuracy in a CNN India headline, Oliver notes that the “billion votes” cited in a network graphic is off “by the population of Brazil.” It’s a wickedly specific burn, and one that comes with a complementary geography lesson. While Stewart and Colbert have long been credited with keeping their primarily young audiences informed, Oliver looks to be the guy who can educate them, too. In questioning the official story on surveillance abuse from the show’s first guest, former National Security Agency director Keith Alexander, the host doesn’t indulge in any “gotcha” tactics—he merely presents the viewer with contradictory findings from other sources. And then he moves on to suggesting opportunities for rebranding the NSA (like renaming the agency after an adorable cat), because this is first and foremost a comedy show.
The freedoms of premium cable allow Oliver to get a little weirder than his basic-cable counterparts—and a lot more biting. There’s a cheap buzz in hearing the phrase “fucking ukulele” in the rise-and-fall of the host’s British accent, but the best indication that Oliver is no longer on TV—he’s on HBO—is a brutal interstitial takedown of employment practices within the National Football League. The premiere episode of Last Week Tonight is a smorgasbord of subjects Oliver wouldn’t (and possibly couldn’t) tackle on another network. It’s an additional, prankster’s edge that occasionally goes missing on The Daily Show, the kind that might disappear completely with The Colbert Report in 2015. By way of inviting viewers deeper into the show’s world, Oliver ends a segment on misleading food labels by directing the audience to Last Week Tonight’s social-media outlets, where they can find extra-misleading labels suitable for affixing to real products in real grocery stores. Culture-jamming might be passé, but this is still a bold opening move from a television series.
With voice and perspective in place, all Last Week Tonight needs to hone is its distinctiveness. The interstitial pieces could be more elegantly introduced to the flow of the show; as it currently stands, they’re there for Oliver to throw to when he’d be tossing to an ad break on a traditional broadcaster. They’re important for adding a little variety to the way the show looks, too—for long stretches of time, Last Week Tonight is like getting cornered at a party by an extremely passionate, extremely funny acquaintance for 10 to 12 minutes at a time. But these are small problems to have for a new show in the late-night space—one for which the host received an eight-week trial run last summer. If Last Week Tonight With John Oliver can keep shedding humorous light on international affairs and other stories that fall through the cable-news cracks, this show might make it to eight weeks and beyond.