Halftime

Last Week Tonight Cuts Through the Noise

Published January 23, 2020


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Last Week Tonight, the hit HBO show filled with comedic takes on the week’s news, is returning for its seventh season. In a news cycle jam-packed with daily headlines about impeachment and the presidential election, John Oliver promises to deliver coverage of important news stories overlooked by other late-night shows or conventional media sources.

The first four seasons’ trailers have focused on Oliver talking about the show, offering self-critical remarks, and warning viewers that the show continues to be “basically the same.” These short sketches showed potential new viewers the sarcastic tone of the show. This year’s trailer is closer to the fifth and sixth trailers, offering a highlight reel of the best clips from the last season. I miss the meta-commentary of the first four trailers, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the fast-paced barrage of clips in the minute-long trailer. With colorful mascots, catchy songs, and witty graphics, it is easy to spot Oliver’s “attempt to make The Muppet Show”, albeit with far more swearing and dictators in the script than any children’s TV show. As an avid fan of the show, the trailer did not offer me any new content or hints of what the new season will cover. One weakness of the new trailers is that if I had not seen Last Week Tonight, I probably would just skip the trailer without context for any of the clips.

My favorite part of Last Week Tonight is that since HBO has a subscription revenue model, the show retains complete creative freedom to produce episodes. This is evident in the trailer as Oliver picks his own guests to interview, cuts into a giant horse cake to annoy Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (a long story), and features singing squirrels that cuss out coal baron Bob Murray (a really long story). While they might be only absurd seconds of footage in the trailer, Oliver manages to explain the context behind these news stories in thirty-minute episodes that mix information and plain silliness. 

John Oliver does not shy away from depressing topics. From bias in medicine to authoritarianism, it is fair to say more of his episodes reveal problems in the world rather than positive stories. Nevertheless, Oliver is a comedian, and his outlandish stunts leave the taste in my mouth slightly less sour after hearing his analysis. 

Maybe laughter is the best medicine, but Last Week Tonight does more than jokes. It gives the audience direct ways to make a change. It creates hashtags to retweet and tells viewers where to donate. During the episode on Net Neutrality, Oliver directed the audience to comment on the FCC’s website. After the segment aired, the website crashed with over 45,000 comments rallying against the proposed changes.

Perhaps this is why I keep coming back to Last Week Tonight, every Sunday, exhausted from another cycle of divisive news coverage. Specific advice on how to make the world just a little better helps me get up on Monday morning to face a new week, and every clip in the trailer reminds me of the show’s impact and all the potential change that the new season will bring in 2020.

Last Week Tonight returns on Sunday, February 16 at 11 PM ET/PT on HBO.



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