Who is still being duped by Sacha Baron Cohen in 2018?

That was my first thought as the comedian's new satirical TV series Who Is America? was revealed last week, amidst a storm of controversy over the US politicians tricked into appearing on it.

While Baron Cohen has a proud history of duping high-profile personalities, it's been 12 years since his most infamous forays into skewering idiots on Da Ali G Show and Borat.

Moving on to more scripted projects in recent times, such as underwhelming flicks The Dictator and The Brothers Grimsby, it was presumed his worldwide fame was precluding him from going undercover ever again. Until now.

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Baron Cohen has spent the past year filming this new quest to find America's identity and has somehow managed to stage a stream of fake interviews along both sides of the country's political divide.

And in the week since the seven-part series was announced, Who Is America? has enjoyed the kind of publicity most shows can only dream of. One by one, the subjects of Baron Cohen's satire came forward to wail about being tricked into being themselves on air.

Sarah Palin complained that her interview for the show would probably be "heavily edited" to make her look stupid. (Ahem.) Another target, disgraced former US Senate candidate Roy Moore, threatened legal action.

So how does a show deliver on this kind of hysteria? Well, in the case of Who Is America?, it means serving up an opening episode that lurches unsteadily towards an absolute cracker of a final sequence.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Erran Morad with gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave. Photo / Supplied
Sacha Baron Cohen as Erran Morad with gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave. Photo / Supplied

Baron Cohen has come up with four new personalities (and a lot of foam latex costuming) for his new endeavour: Dr Billy Wayne Ruddick, a far-right conspiracy theorist; Dr Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, a progressive who's working through his guilt at being a straight white man; Rick Sherman, a British ex-con who's creating artwork using his bodily fluids; and Erran Morad, a former Israeli colonel.

He introduces all of these characters in the debut episode as they conduct interviews with unsuspecting members of the public – and the results are very uneven.

As Dr Billy Wayne Ruddick, Baron Cohen gets absolutely nowhere during a chat with Senator Bernie Sanders, who simply refuses to take the bait being desperately waved in front of him.

Also refusing to take the bait are a staunchly Republican couple who agree to have dinner with Baron-Cohen's liberal Dr Nira Cain-N'Degeocello and are nothing but extremely courteous, even as their dinner guest talks about his wife's porpoise lover and why he forces his daughter to "free-bleed" on the American flag.

The real dud of the show though is ex-con Rick Sherman. As far as I can tell, this character serves only to deliver a steady stream of juvenile gags while he chats to the owner of a Laguna Beach gallery about his dubious "artworks".

But Baron Cohen manages to claw the series back with his incarnation of Erran Morad, who's keen to address America's school shooting problem by giving guns to "talented" toddlers.

An array of pro-gun lobbyists jump at the idea of arming small children and happily help Baron-Cohen-as-Morad with some public service announcements.

Gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave sings a nursery rhyme to help kids remember how to take out the bad guys ("Aim for the head, shoulders, not the toes, not the toes") before other advocates read a script endorsing a programme that "introduces specially selected children from 12- to four-years-old to pistols, rifles, semi-automatics and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars".

It's a masterful and deliciously funny end to the first episode. But, sadly, it's not outrageous.

A few years ago, watching a series of elected officials agree that giving children semi-automatic weapons was a good idea would have seen my jaw hit the floor. Now? It's just, you know, a Wednesday.

Baron Cohen has always been very good at exposing other people's cruel and/or stupid intentions, but it's a talent that's no longer necessary. Because there's simply no shock factor to be found in an age where extreme ideologies are worn as a badge of honour.

Who Is America? screens on SoHo on Mondays at 10.30pm and is available the same day on Neon.