For 11 minutes, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new half-hour Showtime series is simultaneously one of the most subversively funny and abjectly terrifying bits of political comedy in recent memory. The other two-thirds of the Who Is America? premiere are utterly forgettable. That’s a shame because the fake-out documentary series inspired one of the greatest viral marketing campaigns of all time when a real murderers’ row of right wing reactionaries, chuds, and grifters tried to get ahead of the impending humiliation by putting out public statements deriding Cohen for tricking them into filming unflattering interviews.
The biggest selling point of Who Is America? ahead of of the premiere was that Cohen was targeting the most unrepentant dregs polluting political discourse, like disgraced former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and failed GOP Alabama Senate candidate/accused child molester Roy Moore. On that front, the final segment of the premiere delivered by serving up gun lobbyists, sitting GOP congressmen, and one-term congressman turned right wing radio blowhard Joe Walsh recording PSAs gleefully urging parents to arm their toddlers under his fictional Kinderguardians program.
In the segment Cohen’s character, an ex-Mossad agent named Col. Erran Morad, is a bit like an improv partner “yes, and-ing” his marks’ worst impulses. Morad, who looks like Freddie Mercury moonlighting as a jacked Krav Maga instructor, creates a safe space for Gun Owners of America’s executive director emeritus Larry Pratt to laugh it up over jokes about marital rape and shooting Muslims. Plus, Cohen practically filmed an attack ad for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s challenger Harley Rouda with the GOP congressman looking straight into the camera and reading deranged copy supporting a program advocating strapping school kids with guns.
Like many sketch shows, Who Is America? is inconsistent and uneven and not all of the satire of particularly effective. One could argue that he’s giving the Breitbart/Drudge crowd fodder to weaponize when they want to attack the left for trivializing issues (like Second Amendment rights) that matter to so-called “real Americans.” Cohen’s other characters don’t feel particularly inspired and their segments involve playing a game of gross-out chicken where the absurdity of their antics intensify until Cohen’s marks either go along for the ride or ultimately break. So far, Cohen chose some infinitely patient marks.
Sen. Bernie Sanders endures Cohen’s right wing conspiracy webmaster sendup Billy Wayne Ruddick, who looks a bit like Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers movies given all the latex makeup required to disguise someone who is now one of the most recognizable comedians in the world. The segment is mostly uneventful as the democratic socialist senator gives Ruddick his patented annoyed side-eye while waiting for opportunities to politely interrupt Ruddick and point out that his proposal on how to integrate the 99 percent into the wealthiest one percent is mathematically unsound. Otherwise, Sanders didn’t say anything he wouldn’t have said in any other interview. Of course, he probably wouldn’t appreciate the Confederate flag graphic that was added in post-production.
Rudduck’s foil on the show, Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, is a sendup of NPR liberals who want to break bread with Trump supporters in order to better understand them. Positioning this character as a balding, ponytail-wearing, NPR-listener who apologizes for being a cisgendered white male feels cliched. The only chuckle his segment elicited was when Dr. Cain-N’Degeocello was trying to disgust his dinner hosts, a pair of Ohio Trump delegates who also happen to be married, with tales of having his daughter Malala (not the Malala) “free bleed” all over the American flag and the Trump supporter demanded that her husband stop being so judgmental and allow Dr. Cain-N’Degeocello to continue.
The married Trump delegates were incredibly good sports, as was Christy, the Laguna Beach art dealer who was remarkably encouraging of the jailhouse scatalogical art produced by Cohen’s British ex-con character, Ricky Sherman. Cohen seemed determined to sexually humiliate Christy by excusing himself from the interview to go “produce” the semen required to finish a painting and then presenting it to her. Then, Cohen presents to Christy a wad of what he describes as the tangled public hair of various artists, including Damien Hirst, and implies that he’d like to add some of hers to the knot. She’s apparently happy to oblige. It’s not a particularly effective segment considering that an outsider artist making paintings from piss, shit, blood, and semen isn’t particularly shocking considering that the art world gave us Piss Christ over 30 years ago and Metallica used artist Andres Serrano’s “Blood and Semen III” photograph for the cover of Load and his “Piss and Blood” photo for the cover of Reload. The fact that Cohen is trying to make Christy uncomfortable by ostensibly masturbating in the next room and making her come in contact with his body fluids feels more like harassment than comedy.
All in all, the first three segments feel like a slog to get to the final segment where Cohen’s Israeli terror expert character gets a bunch of gun nuts to participate in an adult Wonder Showzen. Virginia Citizens Defense League president Philip Van Cleave exhibits a particularly perverse joy as he’s starring in an instructional video disguising assault weapons in stuffed animals and advising the preschool kids to aim for the head in a parody rendition of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
Unfortunately, Cohen’s return to television is more miss than hit, but the few times he hits, it’s worth it.