Sacha Baron Cohen may be back in familiar territory with his new Showtime series, "Who Is America?" but he's also treading dangerous new ground. While similar in style and approach to "Da Ali G Show," Cohen is working in a much more polarized world.
As such, the stakes seem much higher as he takes on four new personas to poke fun at and skewer seemingly every aspect of modern American society. Unfortunately, not all of the characters work completely, but there's certainly enough provocative and thought-provoking material throughout this premiere to make "Who Is America?" appointment television.
The "Borat" and "Bruno" star manages to convince Bernie Sanders to sit down for an interview with an Alex Jones-style conspiracy nutjob, while a South Carolina Republican delegate invites a ponytail-wearing liberal lunatic into her home and an art professional must endure a prison artist whose medium is human fluids and waste.
If nothing else, watching current and former lawmakers support the notion of arming children as young as three years old as part of a solution to combat school shootings should be alarming. Cohen's Isreali right-wing extremist Col. Erran Morad proved both compelling and too convincing in pitching a program he says is already working in Isreal.
It's the most successful segment in the premiere, and the character that gets the longest spotlight. It remains to be seen how the balance will be split as Cohen brings his new cast of lunatics into future episodes and interviews with unsuspecting people like Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney and more notable political figures.
We've ranked Cohen's new characters from worst to first based on their effectiveness in this premiere episode, which airs on Showtime Sunday night but was released on streaming platforms Saturday evening.
We're not sure why Cohen went with oversized upper teeth to give his prison artist a lisp alongside his English accent, but we can appreciate why he was given the accent. A towering man with a long chin beard, bald and talking about violent acts while in prison can be disarming. But for some reason, everything sounds charming and delightful in an English accent to Americans, so probably the choice is to soften the blow of his words.
Not that Cohen usually worries about such things, but it was interesting watching Sherman chat with gallery curator Christy. She seemed not only very patient with his art presentation, but was even taken by it. Christy wasn't even thrown when he said he had to go to the bathroom because he was inspired right then, returning with a piece he claimed was made with feces and semen.
When describing his medium of choice, she said, "You were taking all the bad stuff, all the stuff you didn't need, everything built up inside your body that would otherwise cause you to become septic, you were releasing and then you're turning it into something beautiful."
Cohen looked like he couldn't believe how much she was buying into his line of crap ... literally. Honestly, we couldn't either, but neither could we quite grasp the point of this character or segment.
If the show is about showing us "who is America," who does Christy represent? Someone who is perhaps too open-minded or tolerant of others? Someone who is so optimistic about art that she willingly gave Sherman a bit of her pubic hair for a brush he claimed included hairs from many other notable artists? Is she supposed to look foolish, because it doesn't quite happen.
She might have come across as naive, but there is an artist out there who paints with his penis, and bodily fluids have been used to make art before. Perhaps it was Cohen who was naive with this character and this premise because he didn't push the envelope far enough as to what could reasonably be expected in the art world.
Even before the interview began, the discomfort on Bernie Sanders' face was evident. Ruddick presented himself like a stereotypical redneck MAGA-loving nutjob, even going so far as to ride one of those motorized scooters.
"Obamacare came along and forced me to see a doctor. Suddenly, I had three diseases," Ruddick told Bernie, railing against Obama. He claimed both types of diabetes and obese legs, and yet Sanders rolled with it. He even rolled with it when Ruddick brought out a ridiculous chart to explain his plan of simply moving the 99 percent into the 1 percent to solve this economic divide.
Sanders tried to argue basic math, that if the entire population was in the 1 percent, it would no longer be the 1 percent, but Ruddick wasn't looking for logic or reason or even basic common sense.
Pretty quickly, it started to look like Sanders realized this guy was a complete idiot, and he may have even started to suspect the whole segment was a bunch of garbage. It did turn into the shortest segment, which didn't give us as much time to spend with Ruddick and see what he thinks.
Sanders may have proven a little too cynical or savvy for this particular brand of stupidity to work, or the chart might have just taken things too far. Cohen succeeds when he convinces people to believe in the stupidity of his characters, but we're not sure Ruddick came off as completely believable here.
Another character that might work in another segment, but we're not sure he worked here as Cohen might have intended. Or if it did, we're not sure what Cohen was trying to accomplish in the segment where his left-wing "radio journalist" shares a meal with a South Carolina Trump delegate and her husband.
"I've been cycling through our fractured nation listening respectfully respectfully, without prejudice, to Republicans with the hope of changing their racist and childish views," Cohen said to introduce the segment, and yet he didn't challenge any of those views. Or at least, they didn't take the bait if that's what he was doing.
"Our son, Harvey Milk, is not allowed to urinate standing up," Cohen told them at one point, saying it was to break down gender stereotypes. But it got much worse when he talked about his daughter, who he claimed he forced to urinate standing up. She's also recently started menstruating, he explained, and the family is encouraging her to "free bleed" ... on an American flag. This is to represent the blood that was shed in the founding of America.
If it sounds utterly preposterous, it absolutely is. And yet, the couple sits there patiently and endures this story. They even commiserate with him when he talks about his wife getting involved sexually with a dolphin. Ridiculous! And yet, neither of them seem to doubt the claim, which makes a twisted kind of sense when you consider they tout the belief that homosexuality leads to bestiality. But Cohen didn't push on that topic, even with the opening there.
He didn't actually challenge anything about who they are, what they represent or their beliefs. He just challenged them to endure his obnoxious stories about his life and family, which they did with incredible grace and restraint. The wife several times shushed her husband, telling him not to pass judgment.
During the closing credits, though, when asked what they think about the values of Cain-N'Degeocello, the husband responded, "Can I be crudely honest? F--ked up."
He's not wrong, which again made us wonder what the point of this dinner was, or Cohen's approach to this rich, conservative, white family was. There were so many ways he could have tried to push them, or gotten them to express their views and challenged them. Maybe that's what he was trying to do and they just didn't take the bait.
Without a doubt, the final and longest segment featured the most successful new character in Cohen's arsenal. In a way, though, it's surprising that Morad was the most successful at duping people into believing his agenda as he is perhaps the most cartoonish of Cohen's new roster of personalities.
A right-wing extremist from Isreal, Morad's mission was to convince lawmakers to put guns in the hands of children as young as three-years old as a way to combat school shootings; a program he says is already successfully implemented in Isreal. What's remarkable about the segment is how far he was able to get with this terrible agenda idea.
He started by talking with gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave, who seemed immediately on board with the program. "We've been pushing something along this line for years, but really haven't gotten any traction. We were thinking seventh or eighth grade. You're talking much younger than that."
Morad then revealed, "My son was in the very first program, may he rest in peace. He died doing what I love."
Van Cleave didn't pick up on the rather awful final statement, instead rolling right into the benefits of kid soldiers. It was either a statement on the poor listening skills of most Americans, who are often just waiting for an opening to get their talking points, or his excitement with the proposal.
"Yeah, they haven't developed what we call 'conscious,' where you feel guilty about doing something wrong," Van Cleave explained. "That's developing. You're learning right and wrong. If they haven't developed that yet, they could be very effective soldiers."
Leaving aside his enthusiasm about kid soldiers being able to do more "wrong" with less guilt, Van Cleave doubled down by participating in a PSA for "Kinder Guardians," complete with stuffed animal guns that kids can use to "spit candy" at bad guys in their classrooms and a catchy jingle.
From here, Morad took his mission to Congress where he convinced former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh and two current Representatives, Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC) to all participate in a PSA touting the value of the "Kinder Guardians" program.
"A three-year old can not defend himself from a assault rifle by throwing a Hello kitty pencil case at it," Rohrabacher said. "Our founding fathers did not put an age limit on the second amendment."
The person who came out of the episode the worst was probably Executive Director Emeritus of Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt, who laughed at Morad's claim that you can't rape your wife. "Do you think the liberals are using these school shootings to further their anti-tragedy agenda," Morad asked, to which Pratt agreed without realizing what Morad had said.
Pratt said that well-trained kids would learn that as soon as they hear "Alluha Akbar," they would go reaching for their guns. "We had one problem with this," Morad countered. "There was a Muslim gardener who was praying, and he said, 'Alluha Akbar,' and he got -- he got shot."
Pratt laughed hysterically at this, replying, "Pray in secret.
"Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuality," Pratt said for the PSA. "They don't worry if it's politically correct to shoot a mentally deranged gunman. They'll just do it." He even read off the scientific reasons kids may be more suited to respond in these situations, including such scientific jargon like Cardi B, Blink-182, Rita Ora and Wiz Khalifa.
It is segments like these that can make "Who Is America?" a successful venture for Cohen and Showtime. This one happens to brutally skewer gun supporters, but that can't entirely be laid at Cohen's feet. They were just the best respondents to what he was doing in this episode.
Hopefully, future episodes will share that love with other segments of society from across the political divide. And perhaps one or more of Cohen's characters that misfired a bit in this premiere will get their chance to shine as well.
"Who Is America?" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.