The poet Maya Angelou famously said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Cohen—who has made a career out of embodying absurd naifs like Kazakh reporter Borat Sagdiyev and white rapper Ali G in order to humiliate various politicians, celebrities and experts—seems to live by that credo. He has a preternatural ability to not only discern who his interviewees really are, but to follow that intuition until he’s coaxed them into articulating their own extremism, bigotry or gullibility. In Pratt’s case, Cohen sniffed out all three in succession.
But now that we have a President who tweets ad hominem insults and stops short of criticizing Vladimir Putin as the Russia investigation drags on, it’s fair to ask: Do we actually need Cohen to put a finer point on our leaders’ venality, the way he did on the George W. Bush-era Ali G Show?
A real-world political discourse straight out of professional wrestling is only one reason why Who Is America? doesn’t always elicit gasps—or even laughs. The show also includes too much filler. In one sketch from Sunday’s premiere, an art consultant listens politely as Cohen’s grizzled ex-con character, Rick Sherman, shows her paintings he made with bodily excretions. The gag falls flat, partly because art-world credulity is a cliché and partly because it’s clear the mark is just being kind. In the guise of right-wing blogger Billy Wayne Ruddick, Cohen interviews Bernie Sanders, but the Senator sticks to his usual script about healthcare and the 1%.
Dinner with a Trump delegate, too, is relatively tame. She and her husband turn out to be unnervingly patient when the last of Cohen’s Who Is America? characters, bleeding-heart liberal Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, bikes up to their home in an NPR T-shirt. They react only with sighs when he announces that his daughter menstruates on American flags, as part of a Clinton Foundation initiative, and go so far as to advise their guest on how to deal with his wife’s dolphin lover. Nira is a potentially dangerous character, one whose absurdity might further false equivalences between flaky hippies and Pizzagate conspiracy theorists. Yet there’s also a hint of genius in his segment, which reveals not the intolerance of Trump supporters but their apparent eagerness to believe that such perverse behavior is typical of folks on the other side of the political spectrum.
The sketch captures the polarization of American society in a way that’s unique among post-2016 satire (including Showtime’s own toothless Our Cartoon President). So does the brilliant sequence in which Pratt, Virginia Citizens Defense League president Philip Van Cleave and several members of Congress endorse guns for kids. Safe in what they’ve been told is a partisan milieu, they show us who they really are. The extent to which you believe them will probably dictate whether Who Is America? strikes you as uneven comedy or harrowing tragedy.