TV review: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

by Greg Dixon / 20 February, 2017

Overindulging on a diet of Trump can give you a severe bellyache.

I really have to do something about my diet. Right now it’s all Trump, all the time, with lots of ­snacking on Trump between meals of Trump, followed by shameful ­midnight bingeing on Trump.

Talk about a gut ache – burp! – but that’s got nothing on the bowel-­loosening fear that President Donald Trump will do something worse, such as start a war with China or kill La La Land’s Oscar chances by praising it on Twitter.

These, it hardly needs saying, are troubling times. Conversely, it’s apparently never been a better time to be an American comedian with a late-night talk show or an actor with a talent for impersonating Trump and his Cabinet of grotesques. Ratings in the US for the likes of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Saturday Night Live have recently been, as Trump would say, “Bigly!”

My Trump diet has had me searching the web daily for the latest monologues from such late-night hosts as Colbert, Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah, and trying to find bootleg YouTube clips from SNL’s attempts to make Trump so angry he’ll explode like Monty Python’s Mr Creosote.

However, what’s been missing in the 412 years since Trump was inaugurated has been comedian John Oliver. His Last Week Tonight arrived back last week after a three-month break and part of me hoped it would be like the cavalry riding over the hill to save the day. Only it couldn’t, and it didn’t.

Oliver – thanks to his show being on US cable network HBO – has been one of the rudest as well as the most vociferous of Trump’s comedy critics, although, unlike me, he has been careful to make sure he hasn’t had a diet of all Trump, all the time. But there was no avoiding the new President and his first month in office, and Oliver made a meal of it on his return – well, sort of.

Leading with zingers about Trump’s Cabinet nominees – “they seem to have been chosen ­sarcastically” – and the President’s bizarre ­handshake technique, his main story was a ­dissection of Trump – “a pathological liar”, Oliver called him – and his relationship with the truth.

What followed was sometimes amusing and ­concisely framed. It included the observation that if, like Trump’s supporters, you get fake ­information from the same dodgy sources as he does, sources such as Breitbart and Alex Jones, then he “doesn’t look like a crank, he looks like the first president to tell the truth”. It was a neat summary, but hardly a fresh view. Depressingly, it felt like trying to put out a fire by yelling at it.

And that’s the problem. In the first thousand years of Trump’s Reich, Oliver and his fellow comics must find new but also meaningful ways to satirise a president that South Park’s makers announced this month is beyond even their mockery.

Now that the pigs are in charge, maybe we need more than comedy. Perhaps we need a new George Orwell to write a 21st-century kind of Animal Farm.

Or we could just move to an animal farm, which is exactly what I’ll be doing soon. And in ­preparation, I watched the first ­Country Calendar of the year.

As with Last Week Tonight, it, too, was about the fallout from a ­disaster last November – this time, the ­Kai­koura earthquake.

The show, which marked half a century on the box last year, was on the ground in Kaikoura just three days after the quake and followed the manager of a huge station near ­Cheviot as he tried to restore ­something like normality to the farm, its staff and his family. Country Calendar still does this slice-of-down-home-life stuff well, letting its subjects and its pictures tell stories about a New Zealand of which fewer and fewer of us now have first-hand experience or knowledge.

And the take-home message from its first outing this year couldn’t have been more apt in the age of Trump: the secret to surviving disasters is strong communities.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, SoHo, Sky 010, Monday, 10.30pm.

Country Calendar, TVNZ 1, Sunday, 7.00pm.

This article was first published in the February 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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