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Showtime was surely being facetious when, in the run-up to the July premiere of its Sacha Baron Cohen prank show Who Is America?, the network promoted the series as “perhaps the most dangerous show in the history of television.” But in the wake of last night’s stinker of a finale, even a generously ironic reading of that claim is laughable. Showtime engineered a buzzy start to the series, keeping its existence under wraps until just a couple of weeks before the premiere, and screening the first two episodes — which boasted the strongest sketches of the season — in-person only, for critics who had signed nondisclosure agreements. The message we were meant to absorb was clear: Cohen’s daring new program was not going to pull any punches.
If we’d been sharper, we might have realized that the secrecy was an admission of the show’s delicacy, its dependence upon surprise — that it wasn’t that big a deal on its own and had to be puffed up into one. Time after time, when confronted with the opportunity to hold his unwitting scene partners’ feet to the fire, Cohen went for a light singe instead of a sick burn. Even when people behaved in genuinely damning ways, goaded along by Cohen’s characters, the series suffered from a fundamental disconnect between what were intended as “gotcha” moments and the way such moments play out on TV at a time when politicians and media provocateurs regularly call for their opponents to be jailed or worse. What’s really shocking about Who Is America? is that it’s not shocking at all.
Most of the finale centered on an elaborate joke in which Cohen, in the guise of Israeli terrorism expert Erran Morad, puts a trio of Trump-supporting white men through special “training” on how to infiltrate America’s most dangerous group — antifa. Morad selects one man to accompany him to the Women’s March in San Francisco, where both men dress up as “radical lesbians” in pink knit pussy hats and put “tracking devices” on three individuals in the crowd. Using an iPad, Morad shows the man the location of the three targets, and instructs him to press a button to detonate the device and kill one of them. The man does as he’s told. “I feel a little queasy,” he remarks, but it’s just a brief moment of pause. Then he calls the experience “wonderful.”
So much for the gotcha. This segment and others throughout Who Is America?’s seven-episode first season (Showtime hasn’t disclosed whether there will be a second) remind me of a very different show with a similar problem. Hulu’s I Love You, America With Sarah Silverman, which premiered last fall and returns for a second season on September 6, is an unabashedly sincere program dedicated to bridging the gaps that divide Americans today. A “late night” talk show, if a streaming series can be described in such archaic, clock-bound terms, I Love You, America is filmed in front of a studio audience, with taped remote segments and a guest each week who sits down for a one-on-one with Silverman.
In the show’s first-ever episode, Silverman has dinner at the Louisiana home of a white, Trump-voting family that was displaced by Hurricane Katrina; she’s the first Jew the family has ever hosted. But despite Silverman’s enveloping warmth, it’s hard to take the show’s stated aim — to connect with “un-like-minded people” — at face value. When Silverman leaves their home after the meal, one family member who earlier had confessed to being a birther remarks that it was so nice to talk to a person with different viewpoints without being judged. Like so many Who Is America? bits, the segment ultimately does nothing but make a racist conspiracy theorist feel seen and heard.
I Love You, America may posit itself as a sweet antidote to the bitterness of so much contemporary political comedy, but more often than not that approach renders the series jarringly out of touch with political reality. And, like Cohen’s show, Silverman’s series never delivers on its promise to reveal something about America that viewers likely don’t already know. (Her show is basically Heal the Divide, one of several fake reality shows that constitute Who Is America?, this one hosted by an NPR T-shirt–sporting, pussy hat–wearing liberal.) With the aid of heavy prosthetics, Cohen appears as several characters who, through their interactions with politicians, tech executives, reality-TV stars, and ordinary Americans, will provide a collective answer to the show’s title question.
With the exception of a few genuinely damning segments, however, Who Is America? quickly betrayed its pledge to peel back the curtain on the dark corners of this fractured country. Most sketches devolved into adolescent-boy fart-and-dick humor — a series of missed opportunities that recall South Park’s bungling of the 2016 election. (Who Is America?, which has an all-male writing staff, also falls into the same both-sides trap as South Park, treating wounded Hillary supporters as the hysterical equivalent of the goons who chant “Lock her up.”)
In one episode, Cohen appears as a Finnish YouTube star of a toy-unboxing show, with dyed-red hair and a pair of loudly checked overalls, and sits down with Trump backers David Clarke, the former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, and, in a separate segment, Joe Arpaio, the cruel, immigrant-hating former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, whom the president pardoned last August after Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court. In the presence of these two despicable humans — both oversaw correctional departments that were responsible for horrific human rights violations, some of which resulted in the deaths of inmates — Cohen reverts to wordplay jokes about golden showers and hand jobs, and relies on the toy-unboxing for laughs.
Nothing is revealed here; this is the liberal equivalent of the conservative rallying cry “own the libs,” and the viewer’s reward is often just a befuddled expression on the face of Cohen’s target before a sketch abruptly ends. The show presents itself as a no-holds-barred shock-fest, but there’s not much about Who Is America? that feels truly risky in the manner of Terence Nance’s kaleidoscopic series Random Acts of Flyness. And, like that of I Love You, America, Cohen’s apparent goal of exploring America’s multitudes belies his show’s actual focus on belittling, baiting, or simply giving a platform to white Americans in particular. It’s the entertainment equivalent of pundits who focus on the white working class as the one and only demographic politicians need to court, rather than the full spectrum of enfranchised — and increasingly disenfranchised — Americans. In the vernacular of Random Acts, these shows suffer from whiteness.
It’s almost as if Cohen and his collaborators, and Silverman and hers, have too much faith in format, in the power of a familiar TV template, to win hearts and minds. What Cohen and his production team don’t seem to understand is that the presence of a camera doesn’t mean what it did fifteen or twenty years ago, when Cohen began his career as a gonzo, on-the-street comedian. We are under constant surveillance, often of our own volition, and anyway, what are the chances that the dude who dressed in drag to “infiltrate” the Women’s March has even one friend who watches Who Is America?, or for that matter, even knows what it is? Who has this guy been exposed to in the first place, and does he even mind that he’s been exposed? And if his peers were to see his performance, it wouldn’t be his pernicious beliefs that would turn them off, but the fact that he dressed as a liberal, gay woman — just as the Georgia state senator who participated in another of Colonel Moran’s “training sessions” in an earlier episode and subsequently resigned from his position likely did so because Cohen got him to pull his pants down and expose his bare ass, not because the show laid bare the senator’s blatant Islamophobia.
Cameras record people in power doing lots of shameful things these days, and most of those people — not least of all the president of the United States — simply shrug it off and keep moving. The fact that the show’s producers got O.J. Simpson to sit down in the season finale with Cohen’s Italian mogul character Gio Monaldo and laugh off jokes about killing one’s girlfriend means precisely nothing. Simpson is a free man. He wrote a book called If I Did It, confessing to the crime while claiming, with a wink, to be innocent. What has been exposed, here? If Who Is America? has demonstrated anything, it’s that political satire isn’t terribly effective in the age of Infowars — a show whose creators claim the mantle of satire when confronted with legal challenges even as they court an audience that takes host Alex Jones’s lunatic rants as gospel. A dangerous TV show is one that gives people with noxious views a platform to spread their poison and boost their brands. But I doubt that’s the kind of danger Showtime had in mind.