School boards and Chinese politics weigh in on new ‘real time’

Guests of the current season Real time with Bill Maher have been an ideologically diverse group, representing a host of left, right and center worldviews. But there was one phenomenon that has come up repeatedly over the past few weeks: one of Maher’s guests taking a moment to thank him for creating space for broad political speech on air.

This was indeed the case this week, Katrina vanden Heuvel being the latest to make this argument. The last episode of Real time showcased both the show’s potential for impassioned talk and a more frustrating trend that’s emerged in recent months — Maher’s penchant for bringing in an ideologically simpatico guest and letting them recite talking points.

The episode began with Maher noting that California had declared itself in the endemic phase of the pandemic. “I’m not sure what that means, but there’s an ‘end’ to it,” he said approvingly. “I think it’s like marriage – you live with it, but you ignore it.” This was followed by digs at both Donald Trump and Sarah Palin about their recent legal woes. From there, Maher plugged in an upcoming special he’s doing in Florida, which will be taped for HBO. “It’s going to be amazing,” Maher said, “and then I’ll be canceled.”

From there, Maher moved into global politics. He seemed lukewarm about events in Ukraine and expressed dismay at Joe Biden trying to “outgrow macho” Vladimir Putin. He then moved on to a brief discussion of Democrats’ electoral chances and Biden’s approval ratings, as well as subway crime in New York.

Brooke Jenkins was Maher’s first guest. She is a former SF Assistant District Attorney and is currently working on San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin’s recall campaign, DA in SF. “He tries to portray anarchy as reform,” Jenkins said. Maher asked her about how voters, especially Democratic voters, view prosecutors.

This is where things took a predictable turn. Jenkins argued that “radical extremism” was on the rise on the left; the overall effect was more like someone reciting talking points than anything. In the second half of the segment, things picked up speed as Maher asked more incisive questions.

He spoke of the need for reform and asked Jenkins where she thought reform needed to take place. Jenkins spoke of using the law to “propel” people toward treatment for mental illness or addiction. Maher also spoke about the importance of ending the war on drugs. The end result was that Jenkins seemed less harsh in his rhetoric as the conversation developed.

The segment also found Maher in a surprisingly candid mode. Here, he admitted that some descriptions of hot issues had become deeply obscured in the media. He mentioned that he wasn’t sure how credulously he should find (for example) reports of crime and drug dealing in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

For the panel, Maher was joined by The nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and CNN anchor John Avlon, there to discuss her new book Lincoln and the fight for peace. At the start of the roundtable, the discussion focused on the recall school board elections in San Francisco. Vanden Heuvel insisted the situation was more nuanced than Maher and Avlon said, and bristled at Jenkins’ earlier reference to “radical extremism”.

Maher pushed back and continued to put together a review of the film lincoln with the problem, essentially, of excessive “waking up”. Vanden Heuvel argued that although Lincoln was a great president, he was made greater by the social movements around him that pushed him to do more. In response to this, Maher said she was debating straw men. “I thought you did that,” she replied.

Somewhere in there, the world’s worst phone game began, which found the panelists confused buffy the vampire slayer (the film, not the series) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It was strange. Also odd: the overtime moment Maher spoke out against masking children in schools, citing the specter of a “Howie Mandels generation.”

From there, the panelists began discussing the midterm elections and the number of Democrats retiring. There, things became acrimonious again between vanden Heuvel and Avlon; Were the Democrats’ problems due to the party moving too far left or to Republican gerrymandering? A similar split emerged when the subject turned to the effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At this point, Maher stepped in while looking visibly tired. At times, the three of them seemed to talk to each other, agreeing on major issues but disagreeing on how to get there. Maher used the mid-panel comedy segment (in this case, a riff on gritty TV reboots) as a way to defuse the tension.

After that, the conversation turned to the situation in Ukraine. “Is every fucking battle our fight?” Maher asked. Vanden Heuvel expressed concern that the media was pro-war, while Maher expressed concern about defense contractors pushing for conflict. All three participants wanted a peaceful and diplomatic solution, although Avlon seemed more willing than the others to champion the cause of some sort of international action to defend Ukraine.

This raised existential questions about NATO. Avlon defended him, while vanden Heuvel argued his time was over. Avlon talked about fighting autocracy, while vanden Heuvel argued for rebuilding the United States and its institutions. The debate continued in this vein for some time, until an exasperated Maher declared, “I miss this question.

For the new rules in this episode, Maher noted that baby cologne is a thing now, apparently. (“Just admit it! It’s leftover vaccine,” he said.) And he asked for more curling medicine. (“This whole sport would make a lot more sense if I knew they were all stoned on something.”)

Maher went on to cite Eileen Gu’s decision to represent China at the Winter Games as representative of a larger geopolitical trend. Maher argued that although the United States has many flaws, it remains preferable to China when it comes to human rights and democracy. Maher spoke about it in light of larger decisions by celebrities and corporations to ignore China’s human rights record in favor of profiteering.

The segment included Maher’s obligatory “wake-up” research – in this case, asking whether people refrain from criticizing the Chinese government for fear of being perceived as racist. But the issues he raised are genuinely disturbing and don’t quite line partisan lines; because of that, it made for one of the most effective segments in that vein he’s done in a while.