When the first few episodes of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver aired last year, I felt a surge of excitement. I’d grown up on the satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but I was beginning to tire of their line: we’re in comedy, not in politics; we don’t take a side; we just want to “restore sanity” to the political debate (as Stewart’s famous rally announced).
Oliver seemed different. He took a side. He took the time to explain seemingly arcane political and economic topics and show their relevance to everyday life.
Oliver was also exciting because he took on big corporations so directly, and with so much gusto. Now in his second season, Oliver has skewered the tobacco industry, the sugar industry, the test prep industry, the for-profit education industry, and — just last week — the chicken farming industry. He and his team do impressive research, gleefully delving into the nuts and bolts of corporate malfeasance.
But after watching the show week after week, I realized that Oliver often repeats the same troubling formula, at least in the segment that makes up the bulk of his show. The bit begins with Oliver entreating the audience to stay with him: this topic probably seems dull, he allows, but it is worth exploring. He then gets into the meat of it, and this is where he excels — exposing corporate chicanery, making clear the human costs of companies’ insatiable thirst for profit.
Then towards the end of the segment, he invariably steps back, and fails to follow his investigation to its logical conclusion. Despite the scale of the problems he has exposed, he suggests that they are specific to one industry (whatever it happens to be that week), and that they can be addressed with some regulation here, some public outcry there. He rarely raises the possibility that there may be a more systemic rot, even if that’s what the sum of his episodes suggests.
Take, for instance, the chicken farming bit. Oliver ends with an explanation of an upcoming vote in Congress that would put some minor regulations in place for the chicken industry, and he suggests shaming politicians who don’t support the amendment.
This serves two related purposes. One, it functions as an emotional ballast: even though Oliver himself admits that the reform in question is just a tiny step forward, he puts all his energy and rhetorical skills into promoting it. And two, it gives the audience a shallow sense of empowerment — that they can change the system by hectoring some politicians on social media.
True, in the age of Anonymous, this kind of online harassment can be surprisingly successful, as when Oliver rallied internet trolls to defend net neutrality. These victories should be celebrated, but they should not distract from the much larger, long-range task of organizing, mobilizing, and struggling against the interrelated problems that Oliver so skillfully details.
Incidentally, Oliver’s formula is the same one that Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan uses in his hit Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate (“Truth Prevails”). Although the program favors the melodramatic instead of the comedic, Khan too takes progressive positions on hot-button issues while declining to explore their root causes. And he always concludes by offering all-too-easy steps the audience can take to solve these injustices (donating to charities, changing personal behavior, and so on).
I’m tempted to say that Oliver, with his mountains of research and his evident anti-corporate attitude, should know better than Khan, who famously helped Coke with image management after its products in India were found to contain dangerous levels of pesticides. But seeing scores of episodes, and seeing Oliver fail to connect the dots between the various episodes — that is, fail to see a more general trend of exploitation, inherent to capitalism itself — has chastened me.
The new film Max Max: Fury Road, if interpreted with some creative license, suggests an alternative to the Oliver-Khan method of social change. To be clear, Mad Max is hardly a socialist movie. Feminist, perhaps. Enviromentalist, probably. Anti-authoritarian and populist, definitely.
But an armed elite attempting to assassinate a despot — it’s more Narodnik than Bolshevik. Mad Max has little interest in the masses, except to vaguely align itself with them. And the movie is more concerned with spending millions on making things explode than delivering an overt political message.
Still, there is something refreshingly direct about the Mad Max approach. (Caution: spoilers ahead.) When Max, initially portrayed as the prototypical anti-hero loner, decides to return to the band of bad-ass warrior women he just left behind, he comes with a plan. Instead of riding hundreds of miles across a salt flat, to see what — if anything — is on the other side, he proposes turning back, going directly into enemy territory, and storming the despot’s Citadel.
The Citadel has water and greenery, precious resources in the film’s post-apocalyptic world. The plan is to take control of the Citadel, break the ruler’s private hold on the resources, and distribute them to the people. Max announces his scheme with a flourish, taking out a map and pointing to a red X with a circle around it. The target is unambiguous.
This is precisely where John Oliver fails. He doesn’t seem to know what the central target is, despite being adept at recognizing its many manifestations. Perhaps he feels that he is already pushing the boundaries of political satire in the United States, and he doesn’t want to alienate his audience.
But Oliver’s successes with issues like net neutrality, and the overall popularity of his show, could embolden him to draw connections between the many issues he has raised and to question not just individual industries, but the larger system that drives them. Instead of endlessly riding through the salt flats, Oliver could take a chance and dare his audience to storm the Citadel.