Last Week Tonight host John Oliver used his final show of the year to rant about 2016. He laced his tirade with the multiple use of a word FCC rules prevent me from saying on the air. His pithy, vulgar commentary claimed — and millions agreed with him — that 2016 was an uncommonly [expletive deleted] year.
The HBO program’s last show of the season actually aired only days after the presidential election. The politically outspoken and liberal Oliver focused the first half of the show on the absurdities of the presidential campaign season. With laser-like precision, he thrust his rhetorical Mark-of-Zorro sword directly at President-elect Donald Trump — his cutting commentary pointing to hypocrisy, dishonesty, and willful ignorance. He urged his viewers not to fall into normalizing what he described as abnormal behavior.
But Oliver also put his political outburst into a larger context — the deep disappointment and loss we all suffered during this wretched year that wasn’t campaign related. Think back, for example, on the Flint water crisis or the January ambush and killing of a Philadelphia police officer, foreshadowing later attacks on cops in Dallas and Baton Rouge. The mosquito-borne Zika virus frightened us as we watched it spread to our shores. The Washington Post gathered the heretofore undocumented numbers on police killings of unarmed black men — victims like Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott. Fifteen black people died in encounters with police in the half month after Colin Kaepernick, the African-American quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, began sitting down when the national anthem was played — his silent but public protest of police violence. Then there were the terrorist attacks in Orlando, at the Istanbul airport, and on college campuses.
Rationally, I know a lot of tragedy and loss happens every year, that 2016 is not unusual in that way. But I can’t remember another year where we were left to absorb shock after shock. And then there was the passing of great talents like Prince, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali. And others, including Holocaust survivor and public intellectual Elie Wiesel, Tennessee’s winningest coach Pat Summit, and musicians Maurice White of Earth Wind and Fire, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, and Miss Sharon Jones of The Dap-Kings. Astronaut and senator John Glenn died just before he could have seen how he is lauded in the new movie "Hidden Figures." And it’s unbearably hard to see my pal the capital-J journalist Gwen Ifill named in end-of-year tributes of those who’ve passed. It's really, really hard not to hear her voice just as the Obamas leave office and the Trump administration begins.
Yep, 2016 was as bad as we all thought. So many of us are weighed down by the shared public losses and our individual private pains. During the last half of John Oliver’s show, producers went out on the street and encouraged viewers to let loose about “how awful this year has been.” Each of the commenters capped off their sad, angry, often bawdy statements with robust shouts of that obscenity I can’t say on air.
The final moments of that Last Week Tonight show ended with a bang. In some clever staging, Oliver appeared on what looked like a football field surrounded by several sets of billboard-sized "2016" numbers. I admit I got a thrill watching him blow them up one by one. He then walked away amidst the charred, disintegrating remains with an echo of the F-word hanging in the air. Couldn’t have said it better myself.