Whose talk is more illuminating and entertaining: that of Bill Maher and his eclectic quartets of guests on Politically Incorrect, or the conversation provided by Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, and George Will on This Week? These two programs turn each other inside out. Politically Incorrect is a comedy show parodying the format of a news discussion; This Week is a news show regularly operating like a comedy showcase. In both cases, the idea is to come off as smart and smart-alecky, to deliver strong opinions while scoring zingers.

Both shows have also made changes recently. PI moved from Comedy Central to the far more prestigious post-Nightline spot on ABC and began draining Nielsen points from Letterman and Leno in certain major markets. And This Week has granted its original host, David Brinkley, semiretirement into brief, end-of-show commentaries, as Roberts, Donaldson, and Will are joined by conservative pooh-bah Bill Kristol and Clintonite moptop George Stephanopoulos.

This Week had to do something to pep up the show; its heels are being nipped at by bulldog Tim Russert, who’s given NBC’s Meet the Press a ratings lift by doing something increasingly rare on TV: speaking whole sentences with real ideas at a brisk pace. When Brinkley hosted This Week, he played the stern dad to a trio of squabbling siblings. Now that they’ve inherited the place, Cokie, Sam, and George are a bit giddy with freedom; their jokey bickering is lively but may soon become tiresome. And Stephanopoulos fits right in with the prevailing mood: As Bill Clinton’s policy-wonk little brother, he knows his family politics. Kristol, by contrast, is touchingly uncomfortable: You can see in his frozen grimace the effort it’s taking for him to rein in the imperious nastiness he displays in the pages of The Weekly Standard, lest he come off like Eddie Haskell to Stephanopoulos’ eager Beav.

Unlike Week, PI can be lots of fun; Maher’s clever premise — that an actor or comic might have opinions every bit as canny as those of a politician — is a sound one. Besides, it’s always amusing to witness a spectacle such as rock star Don ”The Inflatable Eagle” Henley spouting off about the evils of journalism. PI also benefits from being just 30 minutes long; even on an off night, the show zooms along in a way that makes Letterman’s and Leno’s productions seem geriatric. But with increasing frequency, an unfunny thing has been happening: Two of the four guests end up dominating the proceedings. Recently, ex-congressman Bob Dornan and comic Paul Rodriguez tussled over immigration laws, leaving copanelists Fran Lebowitz and Bo Derek sitting around staring at their respective shoes. Come to think of it, I’d much rather have seen Fran (sensible brogans) and Bo (sling-back heels) debate shoes.

Another edition, featuring novelist Anne Rice, director John Waters, comedian Al Franken, and former senator Alan Simpson, turned sludgy when Franken and Simpson spent more than half the show debating the positions of Judge Robert Bork. I appreciate that Maher doesn’t bother playing the genial host, anxious to draw everyone into the conversation — I like his sink-or-swim-with-the-sharks attitude. But those domineering twosomes threaten to turn PI into Crossfire with a giggling studio audience.

I guess this is the point at which I’m supposed to say that, good yuks aside, the dismaying thing about This Week and PI is the generally low level of discourse that prevails. No point is ever too complex that it can’t be reduced to a snarky one-liner. But these shows serve their functions: PI forces celebs to drop their pretense of neutral inoffensiveness and to express a thought or two, while This Week, less intentionally, demonstrates just how rote, how bankrupt political discourse has become. Ads for PI offer a sample topic: ”Which deserves more attention, the V-chip or the G-spot?” Why do I get the feeling that Sam Donaldson wishes This Week had thought of that?
Politically Incorrect: B+
This Week: C+

Politically Incorrect
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