TV | September 17, 2022 5:44 am

This Week’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” Pondered the State of a Divided Nation

Including a candid moment from the host

Bill Maher
Bill Maher talked movies on the latest "Real Time."
HBO

This week’s Real Time With Bill Maher opened on an ominous note. “There is a war between the states that is going on now in this country,” Maher said, citing Gavin Newsome’s billboard initiative and Ron DeSantis sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. The latter was at the heart of many of Maher’s bits in his opening monologue, with Maher closing things out by riffing on Joe Biden’s approval rating — with a TikTok joke thrown in for good measure.

Maher’s first guest was country singer and Monarch co-star Trace Adkins, who can accurately be described as “towering.” (He’s 6’ 6”.) He and Maher had an easygoing rapport, with Maher pointing out that Adkins’s Monarch character is married to a musician played by Susan Sarandon — someone who has (and here’s an understatement) very different politics than Adkins. 

“We went to work and we did our work and we stayed away from everything else,” Adkins recalled. This was the latest installment in Maher’s ongoing project of pointing out that, yes, people with ideological differences can still get along in the United States in 2022. 

Perhaps the most interesting part of their conversation didn’t have to do with politics or Adkins discussing his sobriety. Instead, Maher brought up a song of Adkins’s in which he sings about his regrets. “Every day I have a regret!” Maher said. “Every day, I could have done something better.”

Puck’s Julia Ioffe and author Jon Meacham joined Maher for the night’s panel discussion. Given that Meacham’s latest book deals with Abraham Lincoln, prompting Maher to ask him if he thought that we were returning to a kind of war between the states. Meacham spoke of being worried that contemporary politics were echoing the 1850s, where “we disagree about the understanding of reality itself.”

“Democracy is very counterintuitive,” Meacham went on to say. And Ioffe brought up the appeal of authoritarianism — and the risk it posed to the “collective experiment” of the United States. 

As Real Time panels go, this was one with history on its mind. Meacham drew upon his knowledge of American history, while Ioffe drew upon her experience writing about authoritarian states. What it amounted to was a conversation where the participants had a lot to say, and often did so in ominous fashion. This came to the forefront when Maher brought up a number of election deniers running for office, and posed a worrying scenario — what happens if dozens of members of Congress don’t believe the head of state was legitimately elected?

In the second half of the panel discussion, both Meacham and Ioffe had opportunities to demonstrate their areas of expertise. Maher pondered whether or not Russia might have a change in government before long; Ioffe was more skeptical. She pointed out that revolutions in Russia tended to arrive at the same destination: “A cult of personality surrounded by a bureaucracy and secret police.”

Adkins joined the panelists for Overtime and shared his memories of being on The Celebrity Apprentice. The Civil War loomed large in the conversation that followed, with both Meacham and Adkins reflecting on their time growing up in the South. Meacham also brought up the country’s post-World War II polarization, observing that only three Presidents have gotten more than 60% of the vote in elections since then.

The segment ended on an uncertain note, with all four participants getting into the very nature of elections and debating whether or not they represented referendums on a particular figure. The presence of the more conservative Adkins added a different dynamic to the group; this wasn’t the first time this season when Overtime has made for some of the most thought-provoking discussion on the show.

Maher had hinted earlier in the episode that New Rules would focus on history — but first, there was fun to be had at the expense of the San Diego Padres’ City Connect uniforms and a wholly unexpected Citizen Kane joke. The bulk of the segment focused on the controversy surrounding historian James Sweet’s critique of “presentism.” It’s a sentiment Maher echoed. “Did Columbus commit atrocities? Of course — but people back then were generally atrocious,” he said.

By the end of the segment, though, Maher had shifted gears somewhat and addressed all things “woke,” along with a critique of the play I, Joan and the blending of truth and fiction in the 2019 film The Aeronauts. (The latter of which felt like something of a reach, in terms of a film that seems far from ubiquitous — and I write this as someone who saw The Aeronauts.) If Maher wanted to argue that viewers can mistake historical fiction for actual history, that’s one thing — but the point he’d set up in the segment’s first half grew more indistinct in its second.