Bill Maher is One of the Most Important Voices on TV
The Oscars were super weird, right? James Kimmel trolling Matt Damon, Casey Affleck winning out over Denzel for best actor and Emma Stone beating Meryl Streep (wtf was that clip, btw?), just a little too much Mel Gibson, I think three different instances of candy/doughnuts/cookies raining down from the heavens upon the tuxedoed and bedazzled celebrity crowd, and this was all before the Harvey-esque ending to the show wherein La La Land’s bald-and-beardy producer got to be a stand up dude and not only call his opposition from Moonlight his pals but right a wrong in Warren Beatty’s senile reading of the wrong card. I don’t know about you, but I got pretty riled up.
Much like has been the case in the past year, I turn to streaming to calm my nerves in times of tumult. During the election cycle, there was Westworld, Stranger Things, The Night Of… I mean, there has been a lot of great television available through the ethernet cord as of late. I dropped my roommate’s friend’s dad’s HBO Go password last fall and picked up my own HBO Now account, partially because I’M AN ADULT and partially because I wanted to see if the app for it on Xbox One was better than the shoddy-at-best HBO Go app. Not only is it better, more responsive with less lag, and more intuitive, but it’s available on my iPad Air, PS4 I nabbed from one of the editors of Define Print, desktop computer, and Samsung Galaxy Note 5 (#StylusLife). You know what’s fantastic? Being able to pick up series/movies/whatever wherever you left off on every device you own. I’m not totally convinced my old 1st gen iPod video gathering dust in my California closet can’t pick up the programming. I highly recommend plopping the money on the digital table because HBO has consistently put out high end content since I can remember, and if nothing else you get access to excellent series past such as Band of Brothers, The Sopranos, The Wire, The Night Of, and Entourage, in addition to a well-curated catalog of films. This is without mentioning the ability to catch up to contemporary classics like Silicon Valley, Game of Thrones, and Veep.
I ended up cancelling my Gamefly account to justify paying for yet another streaming service, but there have been three programs which have consistently justified my monthly dues. You’ve most likely read my other pieces (here, here, here, and here) and of those, two are political pieces and even if you don’t read them and only click through to read the title, will probably understand my political leanings. I’m a liberal, and I like my news to have facts. With that being said, the three programs which continue to justify HBO Now are 1) Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 2) Vice News and 3) Real Time with Bill Maher.
Now, I’m not about to tell you that these shows are definitely up your alley. I adore John Oliver largely because I adored the Daily Show when Jon Stewart was the host and admired The Colbert Report. John Oliver’s style and influences show in the way he speaks on Last Week Tonight. It’s a little whimsical at times, but Oliver does a great job of bringing some levity to the bigger news stories of the week, and then focusing on one ‘topic of the show’ (TOTS, for you Podcast Beyond fans out there). I liked Jon Stewart a hair better for his ‘don’t you god damn dare bullshit me’ quality, and obviously his longevity and ability to put out a new show every night was among the most impressive runs in television history. That being said, John Oliver carries on that legacy well.
Vice News is a nightly news program which started up towards the end of 2016. I was skeptical at first, but the reporting is solid, and they rarely focus on trifles for their stories. Each is important, and they send correspondents to the front lines of wars, Trump rallies, Standing Rock, and generally anywhere there is a story unfolding. I have no illusion that this news spins toward the left; the news is generally anti-Trump if not anti-GOP, but they don’t shy away from pointing out faults of capital-D Democrats either. There is one instance in particular in November of 2016 where Debbie Wasserman Schultz was interviewed about her abrupt resignation from DNC chair, an interview which made me empathize with her but also rethink my own feelings about the Democratic Party generally. Vice News does a great job of explaining big-picture consequences from seemingly small details of stories with simple-yet-effective visuals, and usually end on a light note. My favorite lighter-tone ending generally are various pretentious actor-types critiquing popular music. Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia asked why Ed Sheeran’s delightful Shape of You had to focus so much on how he loved his lover’s body and less on other, less objectifiable anatomical features such as her medulla oblongata or hippocampus.
For my money, the heavy hitter that keeps me coming back is Real Time with Bill Maher, and before I even end this sentence I want you to know that I know. He’s an ass. He’s a prick. He’s everything you hate about liberals, and he’s full of himself, and kind of weird looking. His documentary Religulous was so scathing of religion it would make Michael Moore blush, plus it contained several lies pertaining to Egyptology and similarities to Christianity which, to me, were signs of him pushing his own bias too far. You know what? He does push too far, and often. Many times his non-interview segments are hacky jokes strewn with few gems, generally of a rude/crude nature, but also it’s HBO and every series they air shows boobs and Westworld showed a lot of dongs too, so get over it.
I could give or take those parts (not the shafts/boobies, I meant Maher’s segments). Real Time might be the most important program on television if for no other reason than the interview segments are some of the most compelling conversations I have watched and heard since I began watching his show at the suggestion of one of my roommates. Bill Maher is about the only person on TV who not only espouses his own hard-left, “logical” (read: informed but rude about it) liberalism, but at the same time invites people on his show from the other side.
I think that last point should be reinforced, because when I say “from the other side” I mean like… really from the other side. KellyAnne Conway made an appearance before the election. Last week he had Milo Yiannopoulos. He’s invited dozens of senators, representatives, governors, and analysts from the right and who are deep red Republicans. Anne Coulter and Tammy Lahren both made appearances recently. The episode I watched last night, Asra Nomani, an Indian-American immigrant who is a Liberal Muslim per her Wikipedia page, talked about why she voted for Trump with Seth McFarlane (less annoying when he isn’t hosting award shows). Truly fascinating stuff.
I won’t pretend like it’s ever a fair fight either, that would be dishonest. Bill usually wrecks the conservative guests without discretion, but to be fair that kind of makes me respect the KellyAnnes of the world.
I said I was trying to be dishonest, and I really super don’t respect KellyAnne, but it did take a ton of guts for her to call in for a Skype interview in the midst of what appeared at the time to be a losing campaign. Tami showed up, as did Milo. That takes nuts, and you know what? If you want to be taken seriously, you need to be able to say what you believe and argue your point with poise and articulate your logic clearly. You also need to not look like a loon when doing it. That’s part of why Bernie lost the election, as much as it sucks that it’s true. Appearances matter, and nobody gets to phone it in to Real Time, literally or otherwise. If you show up, you’ll either gain a modicum of admiration from elitist snobs like me, or come off as a buffoon and get swept up with other public figures who are considered less-than-credible political minds.
Real Time has the gravitas to attract the best of the best interviewees, including one of President Barack Obama’s final appearances as POTUS. He’s had Bernie on, he’s had Al Franken on multiple times. Some of the most fun interviews are those in which Bill pushes some far-left red-meat rhetoric and someone like Bernie Sanders brings him back to Earth, reminding us all that compromise is necessary even with those who mostly agree with you.
Has Bill Maher made mistakes in what he’s said, giving ammunition to skeptics? Obviously. He’s done that his whole career. He’s been the class clown for decades at this point, but the fact that he’s still on TV, and able to pull a sitting president onto his stage should speak volumes as to how he’s perceived by political elites. No TV show is perfect, and Real Time has its issues, but the teeth it shows in taking politicians to task is downright refreshing. Instead of the cable news’ insistence on asking 1 tough question and letting someone like Tomi Lahren run her mouth for 15 minutes, Bill will cut you off. Again, he has a home field advantage, but in this era of ‘fake’ news, Real Time lives up to its title.