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John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ on HBO sticks to a familiar formula

John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”  (Photo by Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post.)

“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” debuted late Sunday night on HBO – another scathing, stick-it-to-’em critique of American mass media and politics shellacked in satire and delivered by a funny if almost off-puttingly incredulous man with a British accent.

[Watch the full episode on YouTube]

The show’s host and tone are both plenty familiar to fans of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” where Oliver was a featured player and proved himself last year to be a capable fill-in for Stewart. The idea, made somewhat clear by the title, lets Oliver run rampant over the previous seven days’ worth of news, which might be harder than it sounds, since all of that news will have been picked clean by the late-night hosts galore, “Saturday Night Live’s” “Weekend Update” and the countless hyenas of online media outlets who put in long days making sure that they get to the jokes first. Perhaps this is why Oliver barely lingered on last week’s largest gift to the news cycle — the scofflaw Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose preening press conferences and unenlightened views of race seemed like something out of a comedy writer’s wildest notions of American lunacy.

Exactly like “The Daily Show,” the goal is to make elected and appointed officials, as well as just about any corporate enterprise, look foolish and inept while slyly culling together television news clips that make the media look equally inept at covering such evident truths. On “Last Week Tonight’s” first show, this included a compilation of recent clips in which Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) made the rounds of Sunday-morning and public affairs shows and dutifully quipped each time: “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.” In the humor landscape pioneered and settled by Stewart and now mimicked by Oliver, nothing is more offensively disingenuous than a politician stuck on a repeating loop, using the same line over and over.

[Related: John Oliver of “The Daily Show” gets his own fake-news program on HBO]

The first episode of “Last Week Tonight” (and, to be clear, it is only the first episode, with plenty of potential and room for improvement) demonstrated little in the way of innovating or improving on “The Daily Show’s” prevailing concept. But here, in HBO’s land of the free (where Bill Maher thrives), Oliver can display an even saltier and more ribald edge. So where to begin?

Everywhere, it seems. “Last Week Tonight’s” first episode passed by in a blur, never pausing to catch its breath. At a full half-hour, Oliver’s show at this point is just a very long copy of “The Daily Show,” but without commercials or an in-studio guest. The overall effect is an unhinged spew.

Targets included the state of Oregon’s disastrously twee marketing efforts for its state’s health insurance Web site (featuring a Lisa Loeb parody); the canonization of new saints John XXIII and John Paul II; the way pomegranate juice is labeled; the way Pop-Tarts are advertised (“F— you,” Oliver said, to Pop-Tarts); the way NFL cheerleaders are treated; and a smart, protracted segment on the western media market’s stubborn disinterest in the current Lok Sabha polling in India – the biggest election in history, by sheer numbers. Oliver’s only interview came near the end, in a pre-made segment in which he sort of faux-grilled former NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander. In a bit that felt a little late, Oliver and Alexander mused about ways to rebrand the NSA (“The only agency that really listens”).

Oliver has delivered exactly what his audience and HBO want – another show in which people commonly outraged by all the usual inanities of the world can once more gather and make fun of everyone else. It’s hard to make the argument that viewers need another show like this, particularly as a come-down from the thrill rides we strap in for on Sunday nights, when TV’s heaviest dramas and meanest comedies fully occupy our minds. “Last Week Tonight” looks like it will be an intelligent use of biting wit, but it also seems like a depressing way to get ready for a Monday morning.