Mr. Carlson is more fleur-de-sel-of-the-earth. Graced with the prep-school diction of a heel from a 1980s college comedy, he’s leaned into a smirky, confrontational persona since the days of CNN’s “Crossfire.”
But to assume the audience has to want to have a beer with Mr. Carlson to like “Tucker Carlson Tonight” is to misunderstand cable news and American politics.
Mr. Carlson understands that politics today — as followed by cable-news addicts like the one in the White House — is attitudinal, not ideological. The reason to be for someone is who is against them. What matters more than policy is your side’s winning, and what matters more than your side’s winning is the other side’s losing.
So the major product of much conservative news media, to quote a popular postelection souvenir mug, is liberal tears. And Mr. Carlson drinks them like a refreshing chablis.
Like Mr. O’Reilly, Mr. Carlson does not seek to interview his subjects but to defeat them. His quarry often includes minor Democratic politicians, strident activists and equivocating academics who seem cast as walking stock photos of “radical lefties.”
Mr. Carlson walks them through an Indiana Jones gantlet of spring-loaded traps. He shifts topics to imply hypocrisies: an argument about the Trump policy on sanctuary cities becomes one about the Obama policy on transgender bathroom use. He loves hypotheticals: “Why not burn their books?” he asks a professor who had argued that universities have the right to disinvite controversial speakers. He prods, pounces, guffaws and interrupts: “Please spare me the lecture.”
The camera holds tight on his face to show every squint of bemusement, contempt and confusion. (His default face is that of a bear puzzling out how to get at a beehive.) A long “Ohhhhh” means he believes a guest has just let slip a secret agenda. “I agree with you!” means he does not agree at all.
If you’re not simpatico with Mr. Carlson, you’d probably be crazy to do his show, though a December clash with him lifted the Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca to liberal celebrity. (He mocked her for writing about Ariana Grande, she called him a “hack,” and — summing up our cultural moment — you can find various YouTube clips claiming that one “destroyed” the other.)
With friendlier guests, like Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, Mr. Carlson’s heart seems less in the sport. Unlike Sean Hannity, he does not spend much time cheering Mr. Trump, even on immigration restrictions, his most Trumpian position. Mr. Carlson is too prickly to be assertively for anyone.
But against — that he can do. “Tucker Carlson Tonight” is a buffet of things for viewers to oppose: the federal courts, Bill Nye, the rest of the media, California, universities, California universities.
One regular segment, “Campus Craziness,” moves Mr. Carlson to “remember when the left believed in free speech.” “Top This,” a sampler of political-correctness outrages, might as well be called, “Look at This Stupid Liberal.”
The show is expert culture-trolling — another common thread with Mr. O’Reilly and other Fox hosts — and a testament to the unifying power of mutual enemies. Like many establishment conservatives, Mr. Carlson has solved the dilemma of how to be pro-Trump by being anti-anti-Trump.
Where Mr. Carlson’s show pits him against the (left-leaning) world, the panelists on its follow-up, “The Five,” are their own source of fodder, and sometimes their own worst enemies.
“The Five” began as a happy-hour gabfest at 5 p.m. Now it’s like “Talking Dead” to Mr. Carlson’s “The Walking Dead,” punchily chewing over much of the material that filled the hour before.
This being Fox, the five-person panel includes one person to the left — Bob Beckel or Juan Williams — whose role is often to be pained at the latest example of the left’s going too far.
The liveliest and most agitated voice on the show belongs to the libertarian Greg Gutfeld, who delivers every rant as if the maid who spun straw into gold just guessed his true name. (One of his recurring segments is “I Hate These People.”) The cancellation of an Ann Coulter speech at the University of California, Berkeley, he said, amounted to “Sharia law for snowflakes.”
Where “Tucker Carlson Tonight” strikes sparks off its guests, the panelists have to generate their own. “The Five” often feels like the last hour of an office holiday party that will yield a chagrined memo from human resources.
On April 25, the panelist Jesse Watters seemed to make a lewd double-entendre about Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, saying after she had appeared on a panel in Berlin, “I really liked how she was speaking into that microphone.”
The next day, Mr. Watters announced he was going on a brief “vacation,” but he also insisted his comment had been misconstrued. Maybe! So, maybe, were the words of Mr. Gutfeld, during the last week in the show’s 9 p.m. old time slot, when he said, referring to the dress the co-host Kimberly Guilfoyle was wearing, “You are giving America a raise.”
Or maybe the show is sending its audience the message that, whatever penance the parent channel is making publicly for its scandals, its air is still a place where guys can say what they’re really thinking.