For those who thought Sacha Baron Cohen’s in-character interview shtick couldn’t withstand the comedian’s post-Borat fame, a new Showtime series is here to prove you wrong. Who Is America?, premiering tonight at 10 (for subscribers, the first episode is online now), features Cohen in a variety of disguises, exposing America for the sloppy circus of hatred and grift it’s become since his most famous incarnation immigrated from Kazakhstan to the land of freedom and opportunity. This time, though, he’s got some new arrows in his quiver: a trunkful of prosthetics and a nation devoid of shame.
The opening credits sequence features a montage of famous, stirring speeches by past American presidents, set to images of golden fields of wheat and triumphant events like the moon landing; then, like a record scratch, Donald Trump appears, infamously mocking a disabled reporter at a campaign rally. From there, Cohen and his team of producers proceed to humiliate congressmen, RNC delegates, lobbyists, and more by setting traps into which the show’s unknowing participants enthusiastically nosedive. (Beyond obviating the need for a marketing budget, the number of politicians who have issued statements in the wake of Showtime’s announcing the series, claiming they were unduly duped by Cohen’s trickery, is almost more entertaining than the episodes themselves. It’s not a sideshow; it is the show.)
Cohen uses several characters to set his traps, including Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a cowboy-hat–sporting conspiracy theorist who claims to have a PhD and directs viewers to his website, Truthbrary.org (as in, the opposite of lie-brary); Dr. Nira Cain, a self-professed “self-hating white male” with a ponytail and a potbelly who bikes around his native Portland wearing an NPR T-shirt and a pussy hat over his helmet; Rick Sherman, a British ex-con and aspiring artist; and Erran Morad, an Israeli terrorism expert and one-time Mossad member with a scar slashing through one eyebrow and an appropriately lumbering gait.
Each character’s scenes are presented in the style of their own separate reality shows, with unique title fonts (Dr. Cain’s segment is titled “Healing the Divide,” rendered in pink lettering against a blue sky), music, and editing to suit the distinct personalities of their hosts. Who Is America? is as much a critique of reality TV as it is American politics (at this point, what’s the difference?). All that tone-hopping can make the show a little disjointed, but it’s certainly never boring. At times Cohen struggles to keep his American accents on course as he veers ever so slightly into his own British intonation. But with the exception of Rick Sherman — whose portion of the pilot had little to do with American politics and thus seemed lifted from another show entirely — Cohen employs these alter egos like a sharp shooter, pointing them in the direction of carefully selected interviewees who mostly proceed to make fools of themselves, as if on cue.
In the first episode, Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. interviews Bernie Sanders (billed as “Bernard Sanders,” whose name flashes across the screen on a chyron embellished with the Confederate flag); the point of the short interview seems to be to make the senator look befuddled, which he does when Cohen’s character claims Obamacare made him sick and proposes putting the 99 percent into the 1 percent, thus solving income inequality once and for all. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nathan Fielder is credited as a director on at least one episode.) Later, Dr. Cain sits down to dinner in the well-appointed home of a Trump-voting delegate and her Trump-supporting husband, and shocks them with tales from his gender-norm-defying family life.
By far the most outrageous and damning segment is the one involving the ex-Mossad agent, Erran Morad, who says it’s crazy to suggest arming teachers to stop school shootings — we should be arming the children. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, he finds plenty of eager Republican representatives willing to shill for his idea to arm toddlers with guns that look like stuffed animals and have names like “Puppy Pistol” and “Gunny Rabbit.” He calls the plan “Kinder Guardians.” “My son was in the very first program,” Erran tells gun-rights advocate Philip Van Cleave, “may he rest in peace.”
He and Van Cleave make a bonkers instructional video, then head to D.C. to find politicians willing to back it. Apparently, this did not require herculean effort: After Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz dismisses Erran’s request — members of Congress are not just going to endorse a random dude’s radical plan, he contends — the show cuts to several current and former members of Congress doing just that: right-wing politicians Dana Rohrabacher, Trent Lott, Joe Wilson, and Joe Walsh all give Kinder Guardians their stamp of approval via on-camera testimonials in which the statesmen spout scripted nonsense.
I’m not allowed to disclose what happens in the second episode, but you could wager a guess based on the above. The truth is, funny as Who Is America? may be, much of its content won’t come as a shock to anyone who’s been paying attention to American politics over the past decade. Cohen has been targeting politicians in gonzo interview segments since the late 1990s, but that format means something different now, particularly in the United States. Who Is America? unabashedly feeds into the right-wing fever dream that the liberal Hollywood elite is out to get them, and it makes it easy for politicians like Walsh and Sarah Palin, who recently outed herself as another of Cohen’s unwitting subjects, to play the victim card. It’s hard to imagine conservative voters will be swayed by this incriminatory portrayal of their elected officials — an entire alternate media reality has been erected for just such voters, and this show will likely give it more ammunition.
It’s no longer news that people will say and do damn near anything in the presence of a camera and with the promise of exposure, and the idea of shaming a politician into genuine remorse or meaningful action is laughable. In a way, the erosion of true checks and balances — of consequences — in American politics works in the show’s favor. Look what these people will do and say! Have they no shame? Nope!
But that lack of shame also demonstrates the uselessness of guerrilla-style shock comedy as a catalyst for real-world change. The series vows, “Four unique voices will reveal who is America.” But we know; we’ve known. The question is no longer what have we become, but what are we going to do about it. So laugh all you want, but when you’ve caught your breath, register to vote.
Who Is America? airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime