It has been several years since comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has returned to the style of comedy and program that made him famous, but with the new Showtime series Who Is America? he attempts to do just that, while also setting his sights on much larger targets, most of them within the sphere of American politics. The amount of time that’s passed between now and the likes of Ali G, much less the smash success of Borat, and its less effective follow-up Brüno, gives Cohen something of an edge when it comes to pulling this project off; his most famous character was likely miles away from the minds of his unsuspecting subjects during the filming of this program. But while the degree of difficulty involved in concealing or attempting to conceal Cohen’s identity throughout the process of bringing the series to life is certainly impressive, there’s an ingredient missing in the interviews that is on one hand lamentable and on the other a possible answer to the question asked by the series’ title.
Who Is America? is something of an ambush show in and of itself. The program’s existence wasn’t even made public until a week before the series premiere, with Cohen teasing a new project centered primarily on American politics and the effects the current administration under Donald Trump is having on the culture at large and county’s perception internationally. That’s the kind of marketing strategy normally reserved for and employed by Netflix, which teases a new film a week or two before its release with very few of the streaming services’ offerings being reported on much ahead of time, or marketed beyond that first trailer.
Here, it seems Showtime is trying a slight variation on the Netflix approach, with Who Is America? getting a shortened lead-in to its actual premiere, presumably in the hopes that word of mouth will do most of the work in terms of attracting viewers. Part of the process, then, is also utilizing various streaming services’ delivery of their programing at midnight (or, in this case, 9pm PT) across its digital platforms like Showtime Anytime or its app. Though Showtime has been offering variations on this sort of release schedule with other programs for a while now, and Who Is America? will still premiere and air at a regularly scheduled time on Sunday night, the fact that the availability of the premiere being made available early online was part of the initial push hints at a kind of shift in the network’s paradigm that’s become more and more apparent recently.
The secrecy surrounding the series is curious given the kind of audience the series is likely aiming for. Despite Cohen’s brand of comedy and his ability to guide people from all walks of life and political leanings toward making or revealing uncomfortable, embarrassing, and sometimes shockingly inane comments, keeping the program under wraps until a few days before its streaming premiere feels curious, almost too cautious on Showtime’s behalf. Once Cohen’s name is mentioned most people are either in or they’re out, and while the recently circulated video of former Vice President Dick Cheney signing a waterboarding kit offers the series a shot at going viral, the potential audience reached by such a tease is questionable, to say the least. Still, now that the likes of Roy Moore and Sarah Palin have come out denouncing Cohen and the tactics he employed in “duping” them to appear on camera, perhaps Showtime has revealed the secret to the show’s marketing: Let outcry from the right — especially figures like Moore and Palin — do the marketing for you.
So far, it appears to be working. Though neither Moore, Pailin, nor Cheney appear in the first episode, Cohen and his crew will certainly get people talking with what he manages to pull off in the first 30 minutes of the show.
Employing a variety of new characters, all of which require the comedian to be concealed under several layers of latex, Cohen first interviews Bernie Sanders in the guise of Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., PhD, whose truthbrary.com platform is a clear jab at Alex Jones-type conspiracy-spewing characters. Later, he meets with a Trump delegate and her husband as Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a painfully woke left-wing personality who somehow manages to steer the conversation to a confession of how his wife took a porpoise as a lover. There’s also Rick Sherman, an ex-con trying to make it in the art world using excrement and other bodily fluids as his medium, and finally, Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terror expert who delivers what will likely be the episode’s most condemnatory and talked about moment.
Of all the personalities, Sherman doesn’t quite fit; his segment feels shoehorned into the first half-hour, as though the unpleasant nature of his artistic medium and where it allows his interview, with a surprisingly game art dealer, to go is meant to deliberately take Who Is America? from one extreme to the next, as Cohen’s anti-terror expert soon demonstrates. The final segment on gun control is the longest and, uncoincidentially, also features the most recognizable faces from the right side of the political spectrum. As Morad, Cohen gets gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave to participate in a training video intended to promote the arming of children as young as three with firearms, referring to the oft-repeated quote “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” or in this case, a child.
It devolves into an obligatorily absurd moment wherein a number of GOP congressmen appear on camera in support of the patently inane “kinder-guardians” program. Words like “talented children” and “highly trained preschoolers” are thrown around as the segment and what these people are willing to say becomes increasingly unreal and presumably damning. Or at least it would be if Who Is America? was making these points at any moment in time.
If anything Cohen’s new series answers its central question by demonstrating not only the extreme ideological divide between political spheres, but also that what previously might have worked as a way of shaming people, by coaxing them into revealing a side of themselves they might once have concealed is no longer a viable technique. As the saying goes: You can’t shame a shameless person, and, from the look of it, that may be at the heart of what this series has sometimes humorously, but mostly dispiritingly uncovered.
Cohen successfully punks a number of politicians, resulting in the phrase “Happy shooting, kids,” being uttered by former congressman Joe Walsh. It’s surely going to be a laudatory moment for fans of Cohen, but in a day and age of extreme ideological division and emboldened “deplorables,” these admissions — duped or otherwise — are no longer shocking. Instead they feel depressingly familiar, and as a result Cohen’s comedy is more uneven than expected.
Who Is America? continues next Sunday @10pm on Showtime.