Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Animated John Oliver explains the cartoonish villainy of personal bankruptcy laws

Cartoon John Oliver, friends
Cartoon John Oliver, friends
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

Look, nobody is saying that Last Week Tonight host and occasional wise-cracking bird sidekick John Oliver looks like a cartoon. Except John Oliver, who noted during his main Sunday story about the labyrinthine and corporate-coddling current bankruptcy laws in America that the placidly condescending clip art bureaucrat in a “credit counseling” company’s commercial looked exactly like him. Or like “the cartoon-iverse’s steamiest wonk.” Either way.

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Oliver concluded his story by hijacking the Flash animation style of the actual ad to sum up just how broken the American bankruptcy system is. And, no, Oliver didn’t even mention Donald Trump once, as his story wasn’t about the way that the uber-wealthy routinely abuse that system to evade paying their debts so that they can open up more garish casinos and fraudulent universities that they can also run into the ground. That’s because his focus was more on the way that, like so many of our most cherished and entrenched institutions, the personal bankruptcy process is well and truly designed from the ground up to fuck over poor people. Oh, and that it’s also deeply racist. Starting out a story, as Oliver does, with the phrase, “If you know anything about America ....” is never a good sign.

That’s because, as Oliver explains—with only the occasional diversionary slam of Jared Leto and to tearfully reenact Julianne Moore’s entire pharmacy freak out scene from Magnolia—how the tangled, needlessly complex, and seemingly designed-to-flunk bankruptcy process is rigged on behalf of credit card companies. Rigged, it should be said, by those lawmakers (like Iowa Republican shill Chuck Grassley and—checks notes—oh yeah, current U.S. President Joe Biden) who rammed through a 2005 re-jiggering of the law to make the already fraught process that much more onerous for people who have become burdened with debt. And if some fame-grubbing media financial gurus (Suze Orman, Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary) are shown literally shaking their fingers while lecturing those who’ve dared fall behind on their bills, non-animated Oliver, as is his way, presented a fuller view.

You know, like the fact that credit card companies love to flood us with debt-attracting free credit card mail offers while successfully lobbying to make it harder for customers to dig themselves out from under the lucrative late fee cycle companies rely on. Or how lawyers routinely have steered desperate clients toward the more expensive Chapter 13 bankruptcy (there are two kinds of personal bankruptcy, as Oliver helpfully teaches), despite the higher rate of eventual failure, since “no cash up front” law firms get paid no matter what. Or that (and here comes the racism) an undercover ProPublica study found that Black couples were overwhelmingly diverted into these pricier, riskier bankruptcies more often than whites. Or that people, like the mom unsuccessfully testifying against the mandatory indignity of useless “credit counseling” classes for people who dared go bankrupt just because their son died of a lingering disease, are trapped in a process “designed to be so discouraging that, eventually, you just say ‘fuck it’ and give up.”

Then there’s student debt, which can’t be absolved through bankruptcy, a situation unlikely to change since conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) are so beholden to “the death cult over the filibuster” that their Republican chums will almost certainly scuttle reforms. (Actual Democrat and economics expert Elizabeth Warren [D-MA] has a bill under advisement right now.) Throwing to his animated avatar for some uncharacteristically honest ’fessing-up about how Big Credit Card and its tut-tutting, bad-faith governmental mouthpieces are invested in making damn sure that this whole looming COVID bankruptcy crisis hurts as many people as inhumanly possible, cartoon Oliver unctuously offered up only the solace of watching that video of the Canadian guy feeding hundreds of hot dogs to a teeming heap of hungry raccoons. It’s fun and strangely restorative, sure, but ultimately about as useful for people struggling to climb out from under crushing debt as a credit counseling course.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.