Important is the kind of word that gets tossed around a lot when critiquing TV shows. Along with its many adjectives — relevant, vital, urgent, essential, etc. — the designation boosts scripted series from “The Looming Tower” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to “Scandal” and “The OA,” noting their political, cultural, or storytelling significance. Unscripted fare, like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Born This Way,” snags the same praise. Some warrant theses descriptors more than others, but few comedies have tried as hard to earn them as Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series, “Who Is America?”
By shooting so high, the unflinching performer behind Da Ali G and Borat hits a few big marks, and misses some, as well. Members of Congress should be removed from office because of the things they say and do with Cohen’s characters, but the vaudevillian master of disguise also puts his elaborate efforts to work on easy marks. Beyond the level of his targets (a.k.a. subjects), it’s unclear whether, for all the series’ ambition, it will actually have an impact; after all, in 2018, so many things that should happen based on irrefutable evidence don’t actually pan out.
So let’s look at what’s actually onscreen: Each episode is told as segments from four separate reality shows, hosted by four different characters — all of whom are played by Cohen. There’s Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a conspiracy theorist for Truthbrary.org with shaggy blonde hair who defends Donald Trump and rides around in an electric scooter to “conserve energy.” There’s Mork Thompson, a ponytail-sporting, NPR t-shirt wearing super liberal who identifies as a cisgender, white, heterosexual male, “for which I apologize.” There’s an ex-con named Rick, an ex-Israeli military leader named Col. Erarm Moran (see the first-look segment below), and another character under embargo until the second episode comes out.
Within the world of “Who Is America?”, these men host their own reality shows: “The Truthbrary,” “Healing the Divide,” “Ex-Con Second Chance,” and “Kill or Be Killed.” Each persona conducts interviews with real-life subjects, unaware of the charade, to answer the question posed in the opening title sequence: “325 million people are divided […] four unique voices will reveal: Who is America?”
That there are really five voices (at least) over the seven-episode run is somewhat irrelevant, but it does foreshadow the scattershot nature of Cohen’s final product. He’s been working on this for over a year, crafting disguises, building backstories, and establishing enough false credibility to sit down with the likes of Bernie Sanders, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, and more. When he sits down for the actual interviews, he doesn’t break; the man behind some of the most notable pranks of the early 21st century hasn’t lost his ability to stay in character throughout situations ranging from uncomfortable to life-threatening.
But Cohen also falls back on easy marks and easy jokes. Some of his subjects don’t merit the work done to dupe them; they’re either insignificant in the big picture or he’s just shooting fish in a barrel. Even when he finds the right mark, the interview can be underwhelming — a result quite possibly beyond his control, but far from insignificant to the overall viewing experience. If his subject doesn’t buy into his schtick enough to reveal the dark truths Cohen is trying to extract, he’ll just get them to walk into a dick joke.
His plans are usually sound. Cohen uses Billy Wayne to try to provoke the un-provokable; a choice ensuring a valuable takeaway whether the subject is successfully baited or not. When “Feel the Bern” Sanders doesn’t bend to the pressures of his interviewer, it serves as a contrast for the lunatics who do — like when he uses Col. Moran to play into gun enthusiasts’ beliefs so they’ll go along with his amoral suggestions. The Colonel’s ideas, which won’t be spoiled here, seem so far out of the realm of possibility, it’s all the more stunning when people agree to support them. Prominent people. Elected officials. When Cohen knows he’s got a big fish on the hook, he strings them out to astounding ends.
So is “Who Is America?” important? Some of it is, and some of it isn’t. If you live in a district represented by any official who appears on the series, it’s pretty critical you see what they’re willing to do when given the platform. Their words are enraging and their actions gut-churning, as are some of the other subjects’ behaviors. But even the most damning videos may or may not motivate the changes many viewers are hoping for in the 2018 midterms; not when the most damning political video in recent memory failed to sway voters from electing a monster.
With all this in mind, it’s hard to label “Who Is America?” essential entertainment. It’s hard to call it entertainment, either, since there aren’t many laughs to be had. At the same time, if this actually changes people’s minds, give Cohen a Peabody. At least he’s trying.
“Who Is America?” premieres Sunday, July 15 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. The first episode is streaming now on Showtime Anytime and On Demand.