This past Sunday’s episode of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” is a hilarious call for a conversation around the impending renewal of the Patriot Act. The host even traveled all the way to Moscow to sit down with Edward Snowden himself, and managed to get Snowden to frame the imperative for a conversation around whether or not the government has a right to access any pictures of your genitals that you might transmit over the Internet. The episode made the rounds yesterday but in case you haven’t seen it, you can watch the entire thing here:
That Oliver was able to sit down with Snowden, whom history will surely remember as one of the most remarkable figures of the decade, makes this episode exceptional. But in other ways it was no different from the many episodes that preceded it: Oliver makes an invigoratingly well-reasoned and thoroughly hilarious case for why a given matter of public interest is headed in the wrong direction and deserves attention and engagement from the citizenry. And then that’s it.
That’s what frustrates me so much about “Last Week Tonight”: its lack of follow-through. Oliver’s video essays are made with so much sustained wit, verve and insight that they almost incite viewers to action…almost. Instead, in just about every case, these impassioned arguments stop short of providing a productive outlet for the justifiable outrage that viewers are made to feel.
You can say that Oliver is not an activist but an entertainer, and that it’s his responsibility only to bring these issues to light for their comedic value. For me, that argument worked for “The Daily Show,” but not for “Last Week Tonight.” The former airs four times a week, and each topic is dealt with in relatively cursory detail; “Daily Show” segments are very clearly produced for maximum comedy and maximum expediency. “Last Week Tonight,” by contrast, spends at least a week on each topic, and puts tremendous effort into building each case and presenting it to the public in not just the most comedic fashion but also the most convincing fashion. To me, that crosses over into advocacy. Humorous advocacy, but advocacy all the same.
Clearly, not every episode can produce results as effective as that one, especially when the subject matter is less immediately appealing—getting his audience to act on net neutrality was basically low-hanging fruit. Still, there must be a happy medium between the two extremes, between massive action and no action. When I watched Oliver’s episode about America’s declining infrastructure, for instance, I was startled and moved, but it left me with nowhere to direct my energies. It’s not that Oliver should be issuing marching orders along with these reports, but even an on-screen mention of where to go for more information or to connect with similarly-minded advocacy groups would be a meaningful improvement. Without even that level of follow-through, it seems like such a waste to get people to actually care about important topics and do nothing with it.