John Oliver’s Back – and He’s Refreshingly Boring

How are topical shows like ‘Last Week Tonight’ coping without voracious news generator Donald Trump? Pretty well, it turns out – but enjoy it while it lasts

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Screenshots from season 8 of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver."
Screenshots from season 8 of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver."Credit: Screenshots from "Last Week Tonight" on YouTube

When “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” dedicated the bulk of a recent episode to working conditions in the meatpacking industry, it confirmed something most of us expected on January 21: Topical television is going to feel a lot more boring without Donald Trump.

Actually, what I expected was for our screens to suddenly be crammed with fictitious stories to fill the void after four crazy years in which the inmates took over not only the asylum but the TV studios and our social media feeds as well. By now, I’d expected to learn that JewAnon and its mysterious septuagenarian leader, “Barbra S.,” were locked in a secret battle to save the world from WASPY necrophiliacs; that the Democrats were looking to build thousands of puppy farms in red states, seeking to harness the energy in doggies’ tails as part of the Green New Deal; and that Al Jazeera was going to launch a new platform, Rightly, aimed at conservative viewers.

In fairness, one of those is actually true, and I’ll leave you to guess which it is.

I criticized “Last Week Tonight” a few years ago for its tedious blanket coverage of Trump, so I’m well aware of the irony of now calling it boring because it’s not covering Trump. However, there’s one big difference: I’m delighted that the show is returning to the kind of earnest “boring” topics Oliver usually has to apologize for in advance due to their “This would be buried on page 17 of The New York Times” unsexiness.

It’s still strange to see the show coming from that vast white void – which until now was how I’d always described Wyoming – in Oliver’s home due to the ongoing coronavirus restrictions. And it’s clearly operating at 75 percent capacity given its inability to film the crazy stunts that have given the show its unique charm. You know, those frivolous stories like buying Russell Crowe’s leather jockstrap, creating a Japanese mascot (I still smile every time I see “Chiijohn” in the opening credits), making the world’s largest marble cake and, of course, the legendary firing of a “salmon cannon” at celebrities.

The good news is that, now in its eighth season, the show still works without its pixieish pranks – which could always be seen as an end-of-show treat for getting through those depressing but essential 20-minute lectures on subjects such as China’s treatment of the Uighurs, the next pandemic or, this week, police raids. Or as I like to call them: Dread Talks.

It’s also testimony to the robustness of the format. “Last Week Tonight” clearly believes in the ain’t-broke-ain’t-fixing adage, and in Oliver’s ability to almost literally perform in a vacuum. It has managed to remain so vital over the past year despite not having a studio audience or those fun stunts to fall back on.

The latest episode on police raids is vintage Oliver: polemical, powerful and way, way funnier than any segment about police shootings has any right to be. Trust me, you’re about to spend the next week crooning “I’m the baby merchant,” thanks to Oliver’s unearthing of a short-lived ABC musical show from 1990 called “Cop Rock” (presumably “NYPD Blues” was unavailable).

To borrow the BBC’s evergreen mission statement, Oliver is still assiduously conducting his mission to inform, educate and entertain America (if we assume “America” here means “left-wing, college-educated metropolitan folk”). And the day we see him, Mr. Nutterbutter, Chiijohn & Co. return to the TV studio with a live audience and silly stunts will be a joyous day for us all – and a clear sign that normal service has finally been resumed.

Making senseof the insensible

Talking of Trump, I woke up one morning and found my living room flooded. No, that’s not a lyric from the new Rolling Stones album, but let me explain how it ties in with “45.” When the flood occurred a few months ago, it was somewhat traumatic: a few more hours undetected and the place would have been ruined. Now, though, every morning when I walk into the living room and discover a dry floor and rooms still intact, my mood is immediately lifted. Also, I know that if it does happen again, I’ll immediately know what to do – and that’s exactly how I now feel about the Trump presidency.

What’s surprised me most about the past six weeks is how quickly we’ve been able to move on from him. Even his reappearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday didn’t generate much news, and his first question to the audience – “Do you miss me yet?” – was a resounding “No!” around the world. Still, maybe ask us again in 30 years.

Former President Donald Trump on a giant screen at CPAC in Florida.Credit: JOE RAEDLE - AFP

We can certainly expect what Bill Maher recently dubbed the Great Quiet to end at some point – and part of me is intrigued to see if Trump and his followers are really going to spend the next three years whining about the last election. If he’s still so obsessed with the Big Lie, maybe he should lean in a little and “write” a new book called “The Art of the Steal”?

I hold Trump personally responsible for getting me hooked on comic monologues during his tenure – at the lowest point, I must have been spending an hour each day watching Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden et al. to see what they were saying about him. But since he headed south to Mar-a-Lago, I haven’t watched a single one of them. Late-night hosts, thank you for your service, but I’d really like to get back to however I was wasting my time before Trump came along.

By the way, has anyone else found it suspicious that just as Trump was grounded from Twitter, Jon Stewart came along and finally opened an account? Or that the funnyman is returning to front his own topical TV show on Apple TV just as Donald has been “canceled” by the electorate? As Marjorie Taylor Greene would doubtless say: Coincidence? I think not.

MTG, of course, has been one of the Republican blowhards trying to help news channels and political shows fill the void since Trump’s departure – something I’m sure series like Showtime’s brilliant “The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth” are supremely grateful for. After all, Trump has left big shoes to fill – or, as you and I know them, clown shoes.

“The Circus” has been an indispensable weekly guide to American politics since it debuted in January 2016, and it has become one of my favorite shows over the past five years – thanks largely to its affable yet knowledgeable hosts John Heilemann and Mark McKinnon, and, more recently, Alex Wagner and Jennifer Palmieri. (Mark Halperin was also an original host before his #MeToo reckoning.)

John Heilemann, one of the hosts of "The Circus."Credit: Richard Shotwell/AP

As the show has toured the 50 states and their myriad fattening foods, I’ve found it genuinely inspiring to see so many Americans passionate about politics at the grassroots level. (Until the coronavirus came along, no episode of “The Circus” was ever complete without sizzling steaks, frying seafood and doctors on standby to check what must have been dangerously high cholesterol levels.)

Will “The Circus” be able to resist keeping politics’ answer to Joe Exotic in the spotlight now that he’s no longer ringmaster? Will it embrace the “new boring” now that the Joker has exited stage far-right and we’re left with lesser villains like Two-Face Ted Cruz and the Penguin, sorry, Turtle Mitch McConnell, for the short term at least?

Luckily for the show, Trump casts a long shadow over Washington, and the next few years are already looking pretty tasty: AOC v. MTG is shaping up to be a battle right out of the MCU, and there are plenty of new GOP lawmakers clinging almost as tightly to their “Judeo-Christian values” as their semiautomatic rifles, who are sure to keep the crazy quotient high until 2024 – especially as they seem worryingly obsessed with making transgender rights their next (Capitol) hill to die on.

For now, let’s just enjoy the calm after the storm and appreciate the fact that we probably have another couple of months’ grace before we hear the words “Jared Kushner” again.

Just going to leave this picture here for you to contemplate.Credit: JOE RAEDLE - AFP

‘Allen v. Farrow’– take two

I wasn’t planning to write about HBO’s documentary on the abuse scandal surrounding Woody Allen again, after already covering the four-part series last week. But that was before the emails started flowing into my inbox.

Thanks to everyone who got in touch – even if I fear that one ardent Allen fan’s suggestion won’t be anatomically possible for me to achieve – and for reemphasizing what a tragic story this is. I should also stress I do not genuinely wish Woody Allen had been shot in a moose costume, and hope he lives to 120.

However, to hear people pronounce on Allen’s guilt or innocence based on one or two episodes of the documentary has been rather troubling. I tried to hedge my bets after seeing all four, but I get that it’s difficult not to rush to judgment – usually based on nothing but gut instinct, personal bias and, in this case, the skills of the directors to shape their narrative. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that “Allen v. Farrow” is only the case for the prosecution.

The truth is, there are only two people in the world who will ever know what happened on that August day in 1992 – and one of them was 7 years old at the time. It’s a distressing case of he said/she said, still being played out in front of millions of viewers and the media globally.

A week on from watching the documentary, I’m still struggling to get certain scenes out of my head: the New York child welfare officer shouting “I believe the kid” while being pursued by journalists. The images of Allen holding daughter Dylan tight: delightful shots of a doting, loving father, or someone “inappropriately intense” with his daughter? (In the words of a psychiatrist at the time.) The idyllic summer scenes of Mia Farrow’s exuberant kids – a wonderfully multiethnic Brady Bunch – playing in the family garden by a lake. The anguished letters of Moses Farrow, a sweet-looking kid caught in the middle of a fearsome family battle.

If it weren’t for work, I’m not sure I would have chosen to watch “Allen v. Farrow.” I’m glad I did, because Dylan Farrow deserves an audience. But the documentary places many viewers in a terrible Catch-22: wanting to believe Dylan, who has experienced so much doubt and scrutiny throughout her adult life, but also somehow hoping that Allen – a beloved artist for so many of us over the years – is innocent. The only thing that’s clear at the end of “Allen v. Farrow” is that neither side truly wins.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is on HBO on Sundays in America, Cellcom TV, Yes VOD, Hot VOD, Sting TV and Next TV in Israel on Tuesdays. “Allen v. Farrow” is on Yes Docu and Hot8 on Mondays at 10 P.M., when it is also available on Cellcom TV, Yes VOD, Hot VOD and Sting TV. It airs Sundays on HBO in the United States.

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