Sacha Baron Cohen's return to incognito trickery is, in current conditions, a little like pouring rubbing alcohol into the nation's open wounds.
Employing the same ingenious commitment and subterfuge that made him famous in the guise of Ali G., Borat Sagdiyev and Bruno Gehard, Cohen now plays several characters in Showtime's "Who Is America?," which starts out seeming like another one of those naively altruistic shows that listens to ordinary people's widely varied political beliefs in hopes that we can better understand our differences.
Showtime kept the series under tight security, not even revealing its title until a week ago. Some of its unwitting participants (including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Alabama judge and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore) began decrying Cohen's technique of misleading subjects into interviews with a host (Cohen in disguise) who tries to goad them into making or agreeing with outrageous statements.
The first episode, which premiered at midnight Sunday, featured Cohen as Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a right-wing, electric-scooter-bound talk show host who blames Obamacare for forcing him to see a doctor, who promptly diagnosed him with "Diabetes I and II, obese legs and chalky deposits." Ruddick interviews Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., an easy-enough get, who tries to follow Ruddick's inane math about the country's richest 1 percent.
Another segment featured Cohen as Nira Cain-N'degeocello, a ponytailed liberal who visits the South Carolina home of Trump supporter Jane Page Thompson and her husband Mark (they are "afflicted with white privilege," Cain-N'degeocello notes). During dinner, Cain-N'degeocello tells the couple how he and his wife force their male child (named Harvey Milk) to urinate sitting down and their female child (named Malala) to "free bleed" during her periods, all of which the couple appears to believe without question.
Cohen also played Rick Sherman, a recently paroled murderer who visits a Laguna Beach, California, art gallery to show a woman named Christy the paintings he's created using his own feces and the semen of his cellmate. As far as it went, Christy became the hero of the episode, gamely encouraging Sherman to continue his art and even donating some clippings of her pubic hair to his next project. If the idea was to show her as a pretentious dope, she basically ruined Cohen's bit by playing along rather than showing revulsion. Nothing wilts a prank such as this faster than a dose of empathy.
Back in truer form, Cohen concluded the show disguised as Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli commando who comes to Washington to promote "Kinderguardians," a new program to teach and arm schoolchildren as young as 3 to use firearms to protect themselves. (Children who are younger are not ideal, Morad says, because of "the terrible twos.")
That he finds willing advocates in the gun lobby (Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League; and Larry Pratt, the executive director emeritus of the Gun Owners of America) to join his effort is not all that surprising. It's not even surprising that he finds a rather pathetic bunch of current and former lawmakers - former Senate majority leader Trent Lott; Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.; Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.; and former Illinois congressman/conservative radio host Joe Walsh - to tape enthusiastic endorsements for Kinderguardians.
Instead, the surprising thing is that this all seems normal. Whatever shame or embarrassment might once have accompanied an unflattering appearance in one of Cohen's elaborate stunts hardly matters anymore. We're fresh out of shame in this country right now. Whatever blows Cohen might land by way of exposing hypocrisy - well, that doesn't seem to have much effect anymore.
The joke hasn't changed, but in the years since Cohen last played this sort of game, the American political climate has grown nastier and more partisan, experiencing a corrosion of trust, in constant sway of a president who falsifies and distorts even the most basic facts. What part could a Cohen character hope to play when White House spokespersons and Cabinet secretaries are getting hounded out of restaurants? Our world has become as absurd as anything Cohen could conceive.
Cohen is still an undisputed genius at punking a variety of targets, from the ultra-gullible to seemingly savvy. But if "Who Is America?" is worth any praise, then what are we to say about the techniques of Project Veritas, the conservative, undercover operation that has tried to infiltrate and expose liberal bias among news organizations and community organizers?
What Cohen does is not all that different.
Ted Koppel, the 78-year-old ABC newsman, revealed last week to the Hollywood Reporter that he had also been duped by Cohen and the show's producers. At Koppel's invitation, they came to his house, where Cohen, in one of his disguises, tried to engage Koppel in a debate about the size of President Donald Trump's inauguration crowd. It wasn't long before Koppel politely asked the crew to leave.
If nothing else, "Who Is America?" might cause its audience to examine its own double standards. To giggle at and delight in Cohen's pranks is to believe that you can have it both ways: that you can be horrified at the collapse of truth and democracy, and then laugh at a guy who seeks to undermine whatever remains of trust. As watchably galling as Cohen's techniques may be, America in 2018 doesn't really seem like the right time or place for it.