This article is part of the Rise and Fall series, taking a look at shows that were once great and are now not. Previously, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Every week, a new Last Week Tonight video shows up in my YouTube subscriptions page – the main story John Oliver covers in the show is uploaded to YouTube the next day – and every week, I dutifully watch it. It’s always disappointing. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to focus on something ultimately trivial or obvious, like his recent piece debunking psychics. Sometimes because it seems like a waste to cover something important but without a point of view or anything to illuminate, like his recent piece on automation. Sometimes because it’s so frustrating that it makes me genuinely angry, like his recent Brexit update that in twenty-plus minutes tossed off the Irish border in a line.
I ask myself all the time if Last Week Tonight changed or if I changed. The answer is a little of both, I’m sure, but I can pull up one of his old segments from 2014 or 2015 every so often, and they’re so, so much better than anything Last Week Tonight is doing now that I can’t understand how anyone can talk about John Oliver like he’s still the king of late night – unless it was a comment on the barrenness of the field, I guess. Last Week Tonight may have always been flawed, but it once was entertaining and informative. It once felt like a thing of value.
Now it sucks.
Continue reading “The Rise and Fall of Last Week Tonight”
Night on a deserted street in London. Saint Paul’s Cathedral shines on the horizon. A beam of light shoots down from the sky and expands into a spotlight. A man falls from above and lands smack on the ground. He wears a tweed jacket and red tie, brown slacks and a white shirt. An angelic choir begins to sing in Latin.
Ecce homo qui est faba.
“Behold the man who is a bean.”
Continue reading “Behold the Man Who Is a Bean”
I figured I’d kind of missed the boat on Michael Moore. He was a really big deal when I was growing up in the 2000s – somehow becoming that most unlikely of things, a blockbuster documentary filmmaker – but I never saw any of his films. Though he’s always been divisive, over the course of Barack Obama’s presidency the tide of public opinion seemed to turn against him. We seemed to think of Michael Moore in the same category as JNCO jeans or bucket hats: a terrible fad that we are embarrassed to recall having once indulged.
So I’ve spent longer listening to Michael Moore being treated like a punchline than like a serious cultural phenomenon: Michael Moore, the manipulative liar; Michael Moore, preaching to the choir; Michael Moore, who can’t understand that things just aren’t that simple. Like the left-of-centre equivalent of Dinesh D’Souza. As I got older and my political opinions developed, I figured that Michael Moore must be a certain irritating kind of liberal, who roots for the Democrats like a football team, who, at best, was – like Jon Stewart on The Daily Show – more concerned with hypocrisy than justice. That’s not true at all, but it’s what I extrapolated as the only thing that made criticisms of Moore make sense: because if he was preaching to the choir, it must be the choir of Beltway and Hollywood and Silicon Valley liberals, who are more terrified of tax hikes than oligarchy.
Continue reading “Michael & Me”
If you read a lot of pop culture criticism, you’ll very quickly come across three words: vital, essential and necessary. Critics, especially film and TV critics in my experience, love to describe the very best art in the same way most people describe things like food, shelter and healthcare. The instinct might be to treat this as hyperbole, but I like to take people at their word, and besides, there’s no shortage of writing out there that makes explicit what’s merely suggested in most uses of “vital”, “essential” and “necessary”. Moreover, I agree completely: art is an essential part of life.
There are as many explanations for why art is vital, essential and necessary as there are thinkpieces explaining why. Art is how we understand each other when we can’t see inside each other’s skull prisons. Art has profound social value, capable of transforming how people see the world by forcing them to confront unfamiliar realities or new perspectives on age-old issues. Art and the appreciation of art is what makes life meaningful at all for lots of people. I don’t disagree with any of those points of view, but they’re all a bit piecemeal for my taste, failing to provide a universal justification for why art is necessary.
Continue reading “The Redistribution of Art”
The fourth annual Arrowverse crossover event – bringing together characters from The CW’s Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl – was called “Crisis on Earth-X” and I…enjoyed it? I’ve written previously about my visceral hatred for superhero TV show crossovers, and “Crisis on Earth-X” certainly doesn’t avoid all the problems of the genre, but, as a self-contained story – as a TV movie, essentially – it’s certainly the most successful Arrowverse crossover yet.
It was about Nazis.
Continue reading “Oliver in the High Castle: Nazis in Pop Culture”
If you like comedy, but you’re tired of Trump jokes, the last couple of years have been frustrating. Your choices for political comedy on American television range from The Daily Show, which is pretty much all about Trump, to three different shows from Daily Show alumni – Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper – which are also pretty much all about Trump. John Oliver’s turn towards Trump is particularly irritating because his show made its reputation on in-depth examinations of underdiscussed issues, like patent trolling, public funding of stadiums and the exploitation of chicken farmers, and had made a point of largely ignoring Trump for months before gradually becoming yet another Show Against Trump.
Shows without an explicit political bent offer no escape: Saturday Night Live features Trump so frequently that Alec Baldwin will likely be eligible for the Supporting Actor Emmy again this year, even though he’s ostensibly a guest star. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert does so much Trump material it was able to spin-off a recurring animated segment called Our Cartoon President into its own TV show. Colbert was always going to be more political than the average late-night host, except he’s actually not that much more political than the rest anymore: Seth Meyers does a weekly politics segment on Late Night called “A Closer Look” which is, of course, mostly about Trump and Jimmy Kimmel is constantly taking cracks at him. Even that spineless hair-ruffling weasel Jimmy Fallon has started to do regular Trump jokes now, and he’s Jimmy Fallon, the most inoffensive man who’s ever existed.
Continue reading “Can You Believe It: Trump and Political Comedy”
I spend a lot of time thinking about empathy and compassion. I believe in those things, as deep down as I believe in anything. I always thought this was relatively universal, at least outside of right-wing fringe groups, but I don’t really think that anymore. Not just because a Yale professor wrote a book literally called Against Empathy (in a video for The Atlantic he explains that empathy for victims is used to justify the Iraq War, but conveniently doesn’t mention if empathy can and does motivate anti-war activism), but mostly because of how often I find myself recoiling in horror from political discourse. I can’t cheer an elderly man getting brain cancer, no matter what he’s done. I don’t think that someone who punches a Nazi is suddenly as bad as a Nazi, but I can’t comprehend the ease with which people advocate the punching. I oppose violence in all its forms – structural or personal – and I don’t think that any person deserves to be killed, by the state or anyone else. I don’t think “deserve” comes into it. I don’t have the stomach to be a revolutionary.
Continue reading “Goodness or the Choice of Goodness: Vice Principals, Empathy and Deserving”