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After weeks of anticipation — and a public feud with Sarah Palin — Cohen’s top-secret new show premiered on Sunday night, confirming speculation that Who Is America? is indeed centered around pranking political figures and unsuspecting civilians.
In this first episode alone, Cohen (in character) was able to convince multiple real-life Republican members of Congress to participate in a PSA encouraging Americans to support a program called “Kinderguardians” that would teach 4-year-olds how to shoot guns.
While it sounds like an outrageous feat, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Daniel Fienberg noted that Cohen’s punchlines failed to land because “it’s 2018 and shame is dead.”
Fienberg wrote, “The proudly deplorable parade through the street in their hateful finery and tweet their slurs and ignorance with pride, sometimes with anuran avatars and coy usernames, but just as often associated with their own faces and names. Your typical neo-Nazi need not hide as a block of marble when he can walk proudly in his native form.”
He added, “Shame is the missing ingredient in Cohen’s Who Is America? and, unfortunately, it’s not an ingredient that proves merely incidental. It’s the difference between shocking and not shocking, between hilarious and simply fleetingly funny.”
Rolling Stone‘s Alan Sepinwall agreed, writing, “We’re in an era of politics that has proven largely satire-proof (look at how badly SNL has struggled to come up with a take on Donald Trump beyond ‘he’s an idiot’) and there’s little Cohen and his writers can get his targets to say that’s notably more ridiculous or offensive than what they would utter aloud without his help.”
IndieWire‘s Ben Travers wrote that Cohen’s jokes are “hit-or-miss,” but said that Who Is America? “could end political careers” — which, to the British actor, could perhaps mean more than getting a few laughs. “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,” wrote Travers. “…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.”
The Los Angeles Times‘ Robert Lloyd called Who Is America? “a mixed bag.” He elaborated, “The show is a mixed bag; some of it successful, some of it irritating, some of it funny when it is also irritating, some of it not irritating but not particularly funny either. (People at the screening were laughing heartily at things I found not funny at all, I might point out; you learn things when you watch TV in a crowd.)”
Vox‘s Todd VanDerWerff said that the media hype surrounding the show — including coverage of Palin and Cohen’s feud and former Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore’s threat to sue for defamation — isn’t justified.
“The cycle repeats itself, in aggregations of video clips and breathless reports of how people were ‘tricked’ into participating in Baron Cohen’s new series and so on and so forth. But make no mistake: The biggest dupes are anyone who watches,” VanDerWerff wrote.
He continued, “As you can probably gather from the title of the show, Who Is America? wants to be about a lot more than the modern political divide within the US. It aims to tackle celebrity and wealth and reality TV culture. But its understanding of all of those things is facile — literally most of it can be boiled down to, ‘This is ridiculous’ — and the specters it exhumes lurch onto screen like the ghosts of Christmas past. Sure, sock it to Roy Moore, to Sarah Palin, to Dick Cheney, but they’re fringe figures at this present moment.”
Who Is America? airs on Showtime Sundays at 10 p.m.
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