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Now in its 10th season, John Oliver's 'Last Week' is still as fresh and funny as ever

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. John Oliver spent several years as the senior British correspondent on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," then guest hosted for Stewart for two months in 2013. That's when HBO poached him from Comedy Central, launching a weekly news comedy roundup called "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver." On Sunday, "Last Week" launched its 10th season, and our TV critic David Bianculli welcomes it back with undiminished enthusiasm. Here's his review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In a recent promo publicizing the return of "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver," the HBO announcer promised big things - but with a notable disclaimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And Season 10 will be our biggest, boldest season ever - we think. Because we haven't made it yet.

BIANCULLI: Well, they've started making it now. The first episode of Season 10 was televised Sunday night on HBO and is streaming now on HBO Max. The writers and the host haven't messed with the existing formula, and that's a good thing because there aren't many more successful formulas on television right now. For the past seven years, "Last Week Tonight" has won the Emmy as the outstanding variety talk series and has won the writing Emmy for all seven of those same years. Its spiritual parents include "That Was The Week That Was" in the 1960s and "The Daily Show" recently and currently. But John Oliver and "Last Week Tonight" set themselves apart from the outset by betting big on a risky proposition. While each show would open with a satiric survey of current events, the bulk of it would be devoted to a single subject and would impart as much information as it did laughs.

It took a while in the beginning to figure out what Oliver and company were up to, but eventually, its unusual approach became an Emmy-winning high point. One week, the subject of the in-depth story on "Last Week Tonight" was the Federal Communications Commission. I laughed a lot, but I also learned a lot, and I've been a TV critic for a long time.

Oliver rarely has guests, so the show relies on him to sell both the jokes and the facts, which he does, always counterpunching with a punchline whenever things start getting too serious as when in the opening overview of topical events in Sunday's show, he added another informative point about the train transporting toxic materials that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, only to turn it back into a joke at his own expense for being so serious so early.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

JOHN OLIVER: Another issue that's now being discussed is antiquated braking systems 'cause on many trains, each rail car receives the stop signal one after the other instead of all at once, costing valuable seconds. And a lot can happen in even small amounts of time. For instance, a few minutes ago, you were excited to see this show come back, weren't you? Not so much now.

BIANCULLI: But Oliver himself barely was out of the station. Eventually, he got to the evening's main event, a story about the history, efficacy and current status of psychedelic-assisted therapy. These TV cover stories are laid out like college lectures or courtroom presentations. John Oliver tells you what he's going to tell you, then tells you, then offers a summary. The difference here is he laces those lessons with humor. But even though this is a comedy show, it's the information that is most strongly emphasized.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER")

OLIVER: The fact is all of this is hugely encouraging. But it is worth knowing we've actually been here before with psychedelics, and we [expletive] it up. And if we are not very careful in the years ahead, we could go backwards again. So tonight, let's talk about psychedelic therapy - its history, its potential and what the pitfalls ahead might be. And let's begin by acknowledging a lot of these medicines, especially psilocybin, are nothing new to Indigenous communities, who have been conducting rituals involving mushrooms, peyote, ayahuasca and other ceremonial medicines far longer than Western civilization has.

But interest in psychedelics outside of Indigenous communities really picked up around the middle of the last century. LSD was first synthesized in a Swiss lab in 1938. And a banker at JPMorgan named R. Gordon Wasson popularized magic mushrooms after hearing about an Indigenous Mexican woman named Maria Sabina, who used them in healing ceremonies, and tracked her down in 1955.

BIANCULLI: That's a lot of info, and John Oliver was just getting started. A few years ago, some reporter tracked me down and asked my opinion, as a TV critic and college professor, of a new study. It claimed that slightly more than half of college students used comedy shows like "The Daily Show" and "Last Week Tonight" as their primary news source. I think the reporter wanted me to criticize it as one more sign of the coming apocalypse. But I said that in my opinion, the only thing that concerned me about that statistic was that it wasn't higher.

As a viewer, you only laugh at "Last Week Tonight" for the most part because it provides the necessary context about whatever it's discussing. But you think and learn a lot, too. And that's why "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver" was and still is one of my favorite, must-see shows on television. And that's no joke.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the Season 10 premiere of "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver."

On tomorrow's show, we talk with Michael Schulman about his new book, "Oscar Wars." He describes the Oscars as a conflict zone for issues of race, gender and representation, who's stories get told and who's don't. He investigates those conflicts and earlier ones surrounding unionizing, the blacklist and the fortunes spent campaigning for Oscars. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "AU BAR DU PETIT BAC")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Therese Madden. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering support from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILES DAVIS' "AU BAR DU PETIT BAC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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