When Sacha Baron Cohen emerged as a comedy force in the late ’90s, the quality that powered his appeal was his shamelessness. Whether in character as the clueless white-boy rapper Ali G, the bigoted Kazakh journalist Borat, or the outrageous fashion reporter Bruno, Cohen delighted in asking questions far outside the realm of politeness and in tormenting the subjects (celebrity and noncelebrity alike) of his awkward mockumentary sketches. Sometimes he’d dig deep enough to reveal the hidden prejudice or cynicism of whatever politician, etiquette coach, or random passerby he was interviewing on camera.
When Cohen’s Da Ali G Show launched in 2000 in the U.K., his brazenness was still exciting and novel to viewers. Who Is America?, which premiered July 15 on Showtime, is the comedian’s first TV series since Da Ali G Show went off the air in 2004, and it’s superficially similar. Though Cohen plays all-new characters, he’s pulling the same stunts, interviewing people (including politicians) under false pretenses and trying to goad them into saying something ridiculous (or at least nodding along in polite agreement as he does). But in the intervening years, shamelessness has become commonplace. The ongoing discourse in the United States, day in and day out, revolves around the dissolution of our political norms, and the best Cohen can do in his new show is loudly point that out.
The big, shocking capper of Who Is America?’s first episode sees Cohen’s character Erran Morad, an iron-jawed Israeli gun activist, coax several current and former members of Congress into endorsing a program that would arm kindergarten students. People such as former U.S. Senator Trent Lott, Representative Joe Wilson, former Representative Joe Walsh, and the gun lobbyist Larry Pratt are filmed reading ludicrous prepared statements peppered with lines like “Our Founding Fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment!” It’s a gotcha moment meant to underline the blind extremism of ideology—but is that something American viewers really need further confirmation of right now?
Cohen proves that hard-right politicians who specialize in trollish behavior (Wilson is still best known for yelling “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a speech in 2009) might endorse trollish policies as a matter of habit. He sometimes does it with panache, too, like when he has Philip Van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, film a cartoonish informercial for children about how to operate firearms. But watching Who Is America? felt routine rather than revelatory, a reminder of the ways in which political polarization can lead to outright fanaticism in Washington, D.C.
Outside of the gun segment, which closes the first episode and functions as a sort of mission statement for Cohen, Who Is America? mostly focused on his own characters rather than the interviewees. That’s because the rest of the episode lacks a gotcha moment along the same lines. Instead, almost everyone being subjected to Cohen’s shtick is unfailingly polite and a little nervous; they mostly look concerned for the mental health of whatever bizarre cartoonish creation is talking to them.
Cohen’s characters include Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a Rascal-riding conspiracy theorist born from the comments section of Alex Jones’s Infowars, who monologues at a befuddled-looking Bernie Sanders about how to redistribute everyone in America into the 1 percent. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello is a parody of a bleeding-heart liberal who meets with two Donald Trump voters and attempts to “heal the divide,” but mostly just describes his wife’s ongoing affair with a dolphin. Rick Sherman, a recently released convict turned artist who mostly talks to a gallery owner about his bodily fluids, feels like an escapee from an even cruder, less politically minded Cohen show.
This is a problem that Cohen faced in some of his later films, particularly Brüno—that tricky balance between being provocative and just being mean. It’s too easy for the audience’s sympathies to shift toward his targets, particularly when Cohen isn’t making a bigger point. After all, there’s no grand idea behind Sherman convincing a gallery owner to surrender her pubic hair so that it can be added to his paintbrush; it’s just an egotistical display of Cohen’s ability to talk anyone into anything. Is Who Is America? really about America’s overall guilelessness? Or is it about flaunting Cohen’s continued skill with candid-camera stunts?
The answer may lie in future episodes, which have been hyped up by a series of press releases from figures who are admitting to being hoodwinked by Cohen. The most notable upcoming subjects include Sarah Palin and Roy Moore, marginal (if undeniably newsy) Republicans who occupy the political wilderness. It remains to be seen if Cohen landed even bigger fish, but it’s also worth remembering that he already sat down with our current president in 2003—in an interview that Trump proudly remembers walking out on quickly. A follow-up chat might make Who Is America? more worthwhile viewing, but for now, the show doesn’t do enough to stand out among TV’s mostly flimsy class of political satirists.