When George W. Bush was president and Sacha Baron Cohen was at his prankster peak, the brilliant comedian's characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno allowed bigots to reveal their prejudices. That was his MO. "Borat essentially works as a tool," Cohen said in a 2006 interview. "By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudices, whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism."
But the world has changed significantly since 2006, and the ugliness that Cohen got people to reveal is out in the open. A neo-Nazi murdered a protester during a white supremacist rally and President Trump blamed "both sides." The Trump administration separated migrant families and Trump's approval rating went up. Trump started his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. So the service Cohen provides isn't as necessary as it once was, which makes his new fake interview show, Who Is America?, feel inessential and even a little out of touch.
Who Is America?, which hit Showtime's apps at midnight and will premiere Sunday at 10 p.m., has Cohen interviewing unsuspecting public figures and semi-private citizens like he did on Da Ali G Show and in the movies Borat and Bruno. His new characters are Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., PhD, a conservative conspiracy theorist; Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, an overly-PC liberal; Rick Sherman, a recently-released ex-con; and Erran Morad, an Israeli gun rights activist.
Of the four segments in the premiere, only the Morad one is successful. In the segment, Cohen poses as a self-proclaimed "terrorist terminator" who wants to import a (fake) Israeli program to America that would teach preschool children how to use guns to defend themselves against potential school shooters. It satirizes the American right wing's insane commitment to protecting guns at all costs as well as its blind support for Israel no matter what violence Israel is responsible for. Cohen gets South Carolina Republican congressman Joe Wilson to say "Our founding fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment," as well as getting other several less-important gun maniacs to support the idea of arming "highly-trained 3-year-olds." The instructional video Cohen shoots with gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave in which Van Cleave instructs toddlers on how to use stuffed animal/gun hybrids like the "Gunny Rabbit" and the "Uzicorn" is darkly, surreally hilarious. But, again, people like Joe Walsh have been saying insane stuff online for years without needing anyone to prank them into it, so the interviews don't really reveal anything.
The other segments don't really work at all. An interview with Senator Bernie Sanders has some funny moments at the Ruddick character's expense, like Ruddick telling Sanders that his Rascal scooter isn't because he's disabled, it's to "preserve his finite energy resources," but Sanders never takes the bait, even when he clearly grows exasperated at Ruddick's nonsense. And his #Resistance liberal character's dinner with South Carolina Republicans makes liberals the butt of the joke, which is a stupid choice. Nira's outlandish statements about making his teenage daughter menstruate on an American flag are not accurate jokes about left wing orthodoxy, and his hosts' polite reactions make them look like the good guys, when in reality one of them was a delegate who helped elect Trump. Cohen is trying to satirize both sides, not realizing that in 2018 you have to pick a side. Sure, liberals can be overly sensitive, but is making jokes at their expense when you mostly agree with them worth alienating them? Why make jokes that appeal to right-wing prejudices when the right wing hates you and will always hate you? There might be some very bad people on both sides, but the worse people are on one side.
The segment in which inexplicably British ex-con Rick Sherman shows his body fluid-based prison art to a gallerist is unnecessarily humiliating and tasteless. In the interview, he convinces the well-meaning, supportive gallerist to give him some of her pubic hair to use in his "art." She's just a random civilian doing her job and Cohen pranks her for no reason. If it's supposed to be a send-up of art world pretension, there are more deserving targets than a small gallery in Laguna Beach. And nobody is trying to hear jokes about prison rape anymore. Cohen should stick to politics.
Cohen is holding his controversial interviews with high-profile figures like Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney and Roy Moore — who are all mad that they were duped, not that they were caught on camera presumably saying horrible stuff, which they do voluntarily — for later in the season. At the rate the news moves, we'll have forgotten about them by then because Donald Trump will have used a racial slur or gotten into a Twitter fight with Tom Arnold or something. And Who Is America? won't be able to respond.
Who Is America? airs Sundays at 10/9c on Showtime.
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS, Showtime's parent company.)