Monday Morning Critic: Why ‘Last Week Tonight’ is One of the Best Shows on TV
Welcome back to another installment of the Monday Morning Critic. In this space each week, I’ll be looking at the week that was in addition to the week ahead in television. The format will shift each week, as the world of TV will dictate the form and content of each piece.
In this week’s installment: a look at two current HBO shows and some Halloween-themed TV recommendations.
Year-end Top Ten lists are a mainstay of most pop culture analysis, serving as lightning rods for people looking for external support for their own preferences as well as those decrying the necessity to rank art at all. And while I completely agree that any single list is ultimately meaningless in determining what television shows of a certain year are “the best” (whatever the hell THAT means), I think they are still useful exercises in summing up what worked for a certain critic over a certain period of time. These lists are simultaneously arbitrary yet necessary. Especially given the week-by-week analysis that is the byproduct of the episodic recap culture, it’s more important than ever to take a longer, broader view and see the forest from the trees.
All of this is a way of saying that when I do publish my lists in December, it’s hard to imagine that HBO’s ‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’ won’t be on that list. I’m not surprised that it’s good. I am however surprised that it’s vital. That would not have been my assessment before it aired, nor after its initial installments. As a seeming variation on ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘The Colbert Report,’ ‘Last Week Tonight’ had a quality host in Oliver but little in the way of truly differentiating itself from its predecessors But what has become apparent is the singular feature that crowbars ‘Last Night Away’ from its antecedents and actually propels it into more rarified air: Rather than mock the way known stories are depicted in modern media, ‘Last Week Tonight’ dives deeply into the types of stories that modern media rarely covers at all.
It’s a crucial distinction, and one that produces a markedly different reaction in its audiences live in-studio as well as those at home. Rather than point out the pomposity in the known, ‘Last Week Tonight’ casts a blinding light into corners most of us watching did not know exist. Sure, ‘Last Week Tonight’ has provided stellar analysis of The World Cup, Ferguson, and the controversy surrounding the name of the Washington Redskins. But where the show reaches maximum potency is in providing deep, often episode-length exposés on topics that affect millions of lives yet rarely receive mainstream coverage. Payday loans, net neutrality, civil forfeiture, and Argentinian defaulting on its debts do not make for sexy, ratings-grabbing headlines. But ‘Last Week Tonight’ and its writers have gotten extremely good extremely quickly at drawing out the reasons these seemingly obscure, abstract concepts reach into the everyday lives of those watching. While ebola is grabbing all of the attention, ‘Last Week Tonight’ is raising the red flag over dozens of other topics more likely to impact the well being of those at home on the couch.
As a host, Oliver combines wonkiness, nerdiness, and a deep-seated love of America. It’s not the Oliver disowns his English roots (as best exhibited by the episode dedicated to the Scottish independence referendum), but his disappointment with America’s worst tendencies stems from someone who truly believes in its potential. Know that old adage about how you can only be hurt by something you love? That describes Oliver’s relationship with America, which gives his voice a spectacularly unique urgency in the realm of pop-culture satire. Oliver has the upbringing of an outsider yet still serves as cheerleader for the best ideals of his adopted homeland. In an age in which this country’s rah-rah patriotism clashes in almost binary fashion with the rest of the world’s anti-American disdain, Oliver’s approach represents a refreshing alternative. It couches his criticism in an important way: Oliver only shows the world at its worst because he’s seen its best.
‘Last Week Tonight’ doesn’t dwell in nihilism, but rather serves as a clarion call for its viewers to understand their place in the global community. By connecting seemingly unrelated dots, the program does a better job of uniting its viewers than just about any show currently on the air. That alone would earn it a place in my year-end Top Ten. The fact that it does so while often reducing me to tears of laughter as well as fits of anger only seals the deal.
Also on HBO, the new Foo Fighters documentary series ‘Sonic Highways’ is pretty much catnip for me. I’m a total sucker for any type of rock documentary, which makes Showtime’s recent push into this realm equally exciting. (‘Genesis – Sum Of The Parts’ and ‘David Bowie: Five Years’ were both excellent.) And even while ‘Sonic Highways’ veers so closely towards the excesses of U2’s ‘Rattle And Hum’ as to seem almost intentional, there’s something still thrilling about getting insight into the musical histories of various American cities.
The premise is simple, albeit self-serving for the band: In each episode, they travel to an American city with a rich musical heritage and record a song inspired by that heritage. I’m not entirely convinced how the band’s time in Chicago truly influences ‘Something From Nothing’ other than a few lyrical nods to Buddy Guy. But that’s also not the point for my enjoyment. I’m not someone who can really understand the intricacies of music anyways. I just enjoy watching Geddy Lee wax nostalgic about the recording of “Moving Pictures.” Luckily, there’s plenty of musical meat on the bone here above and beyond the Foo Fighters’ actual output.
Lead singer/series director Dave Grohl cut his teeth on the excellent documentary ‘Sound City,’ and his camerawork lends a satisfying sheen to the already fascinating stories his interview subjects tell. As someone who has heard plenty of “go-go” without knowing the name of the genre, the Washington D.C. episode was particularly interesting. Watching drummers play a “pocket beat” as a stand-alone piece of music is the perfect way to introduce the underpinnings of complex musical composition while still keeping it accessible. I mean no disrespect when I say that The Foo Fighters themselves are the least interesting thing about ‘Sonic Highways.’ Their fame allowed this series to be made, which in turn led to these stories reaching a wider audience. While not a groundbreaking series, ‘Sonic Highways’ is still a solid series that music fans of various backgrounds should certainly catch.
A few more quick hits about the week that was in TV:
• Five weeks into its run, ABC’s ‘Black-ish’ is living up to the promise of its pilot. After a slight dip in its second and third weeks, it’s really locked in during the final two installments. Marrying narrative creativity with good old-fashioned comedy writing, ‘Black-ish’ is still figure out the types of stories it can tell. But this past week’s episode about the validity of modern-day child discipline demonstrates the show has some substantial thoughts underneath its glossy surface.
• ‘Arrow’ tried something different this week, with a sun-soaked episode “Corto Maltese” that stood in contrast to its normally dimly-lit scenery. I’m not sure the experiment entirely worked (there’s a reason most stunt-heavy shows like to stick to nighttime work), but having John Barrowman ham it up as Thea Queen’s biological father is always fun. The pieces are still coming into place this season, but let’s hope by the time a certain DC Comics superbaddy arrives on the scene that this third season starts to truly click.
• If you want some good Halloween-themed TV episode recommendations, here are a few: “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (‘Cougar Town’), “Life Of The Party” (‘Angel’), “Bar Wars V: The Final Judgment” (‘Cheers’). Plenty of TV episodes can scare you silly. These episodes use the transformative power of Halloween to other effects.