This time Sacha Baron Cohen ambushed all of us. His new Showtime series, “Who Is America?” — his first television show since “Da Ali G Show” went off the air in 2004 — was announced just last week and makes its debut on Sunday night, riding a short but intense wave of hype.
Carrying out Mr. Cohen’s elaborate deceptions and gathering enough successful ones to make a seven-episode series takes time, though — Showtime said “Who Is America?” has been “in the works” for a year. And that may have something to do with why the premiere episode feels tepid and inconsequential. During that year, we’ve gotten so used to people saying crazy and hurtful things of their own free will in public that watching them being tricked into doing so doesn’t have the entertainment value it used to.
To be fair, while Mr. Cohen’s methods remain largely the same, his new show is framed differently, with less of an obvious emphasis on maneuvering high-profile victims into gotcha moments. (A segment with Sarah Palin, already well publicized, is not in the first episode, the only one Showtime provided to critics.) An introductory montage announces that “four unique voices will reveal who is America,” and while the echo of a news documentary unit is certainly meant to be parodic, “Who Is America?” doesn’t always transcend the association. In place of the rough, anarchic glee of “Ali G” and Mr. Cohen’s masterpiece, the feature film “Borat,” the humor in the new show has more of the studied, calculated texture common to the news-inflected late-night shows that have taken over topical comedy in his absence.
The four characters Mr. Cohen has created for the series sit at different cultural poles. As Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a right-wing foe of the mainstream media, he debates Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont about Obamacare and declares that he would “prefer to be anally raped” rather than give “one more dollar to the Treasury.” (Mr. Sanders is either in on the joke or too smart to fall for it, and the segment suffers as a result.) As Dr. Nira Cain-N’degeocello, “a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologize,” Mr. Cohen wears an NPR T-shirt and regales a politically active Republican couple with stories of how his wife has taken a dolphin as a lover.
Mr. Cohen remains a strong performer and writer, and while these new characters aren’t as ferociously funny as Ali G or Borat, they still have their moments. The least toned down of the four, an Israeli “antiterror expert” named Col. Erran Morad, captures some of the old danger, convincing various gun rights campaigners to sign on to his program of providing weapons training for preschoolers. Mr. Cohen is at his best here (even if duping these true believers is like machine-gunning fish in a barrel), staying firmly in character as he talks about fighting the liberal “anti-tragedy agenda” and affirming the importance of arming “certain gifted children.”
The Morad segment builds to the episode’s big finish, in which a series of Republican politicians, including Trent Lott, the former Mississippi senator, and Dana Rohrabacher, a current California representative, offer testimonials to the fictitious KinderGuardians program. The gotcha quotient of their statements varies, but watching a sitting congressman (Joe Wilson of South Carolina) say, “A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from an assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it” is right up there.
In general, though, the comedy in “Who Is America?” is of the less shocking but more queasy variety. Mr. Cohen exploits the courtesy and gullibility of his subjects to create a surreal disconnection between what he tells them and how they respond (or don’t) — making them look idiotic in the process. As an ex-con trying to peddle his jailhouse art — created from feces and other bodily fluids — he thoroughly pranks an apparently credulous California gallerist, leading to the episode’s most purely comic moment. America may be self-serving politicians and lobbyists, but it’s also an art lover who will pull out one of her own pubic hairs on camera for an artist she believes in.
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