At First Glance, John Oliver’s Version Of ‘The Daily Show’ Is A Lot Like Jon Stewart’s

Image courtesy U.S. News.

“Let’s all acknowledge that this is weird,” John Oliver said at the beginning of last night’s edition of The Daily Show, his first filling in for Jon Stewart while Stewart takes a leave of absence to direct his first feature film. It was smart to acknowledge what might have been viewers’ discomfort with the transition, however temporary it was. But for all that Oliver acknowledged throughout the show that he was not, in fact, Jon Stewart, the moments of the program that were devoted to actual news coverage showed no real discernible difference between Oliver and the man whose chair he’s keeping warm.

With the exception of Oliver’s disclaimers and an interview with This Is The End director and star Seth Rogen, the episode was devoted to coverage of PRISM, the NSA’s data-gathering program (and even the interview with Rogen turned to questions of privacy and surveillance, too). Jamie Weinman has asked what happened to The Daily Show‘s use of recurring segments to break up the broadcast, and Oliver had one of his nicer moments when he announced a new one: “Good News! You’re Not Paranoid! is brought to you by tinfoil. Why not wear it as a hat?” he joked. But that feature stretched to the first ten minutes of the episode, which even given the magnitude of the PRISM story, was a lot in comparison to the material the writers’ came up with for Oliver. When you’re reduced to comparing the FISA court to an American Idol judging panel with four Randy Jacksons, a crack that would be funnier if Jackson were still employed by the program, and if American Idol were still a ratings juggernaut, or photoshopping George Stephanopoulos’ hair onto Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to make a bald stress joke, you may have reached the bottom of the barrel.

Similarly, Stewart’s mode has often been a kind of wearied disbelief that events in the news cycle are happening, a stance driven by his sense that if only we could restore rationality as a high virtue in Washington, we could accomplish a great deal more. Oliver might be able to give that tone a twist by spending eight weeks exploring what it is that Americans are willing to put up with, surrender, or treat as if it’s normal. But for all that he spent his debut episode emphasizing his British origins, declaring that “Halfway through the show we were going to break and have a little tea time. And at the end I was going to fly off on an umbrella,” Oliver didn’t particularly pose himself as an outsider in his perspective on the news, perhaps in part because he’s a long-term legal resident of the United States. “That’s lovely! Now instead of being spied on by the executive branch, it turns out we’re being spied on by all the branches,” he said of the failure to exercise checks and balances on NSA’s efforts, a line that could have easily been Stewart’s, which is fine.

The sharpest moment in the show might actually have been in the midst of a segment where the correspondents, who were ostensibly supposed to be covering various aspects of the PRISM story from locations like Mountain View and Hong Kong, chimed in about their irritation with Oliver’s appointment to hold the chair in Stewart’s absence. “Ten years I’ve been here talking American only to be leapfrogged by a godforsaken foreigner,” Samantha Bee groused after mocking Oliver’s absence. And Jessica Williams told him “I’m having trouble hearing you over this glass ceiling. And it’s unbreakable. All I see up there are a bunch of white penises.” It was a canny acknowledgement of an ongoing argument about whether or not the show would benefit from more female writers and more female correspondents. But the fact that it’s Oliver in the chair during Stewart’s leave of absence, rather than Bee, Aasif Mandvi, or even a younger white dude is an emphatic reminder that Oliver is a placeholder, rather than a test of whether audiences might be ready for something new.