Sacha Baron Cohen's return to incognito trickery is, in current conditions, a little like rubbing alcohol into the United States' 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 like another 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 Governor Sarah Palin and former Alabama judge and US 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 features Cohen as Billy Wayne Ruddick Jnr, 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 Senator Bernie Sanders, an easy-enough get, who tries to follow Ruddick's inane maths about the country's richest 1 per cent.
Another segment features 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.
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 appear to believe without question.
Cohen concludes the show disguised as Colonel Erran Morad, an Israeli commando in Washington to promote "Kinderguardians", a new scheme to teach and arm children 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, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Joe Wilson, and former Illinois congressman/conservative radio host Joe Walsh - to tape enthusiastic endorsements.
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 any more. We're fresh out of shame in America right now. Whatever blows Cohen might land by way of exposing hypocrisy - well, that doesn't seem to have much effect any more.
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. 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 groups and community organisers? What Cohen does is not all that different.
ABC newsman Ted Koppel, 78, last week told the Hollywood Reporter 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 Cohen's pranks is to believe you can have it both ways - 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, the US in 2018 doesn't really seem like the right place for it.