Lampooning President Trump’s White House is to late-night television what shiny gold jewelry is to QVC: a programming staple that keeps viewers coming back for more.
But the competition to deliver the best Hope Hicks or Stephen Miller zinger isn’t just among John Oliver, Robin Thede or the cast of “Saturday Night Live.”
The king of this arms race to blow apart the limits of political comedy protocol on TV is Trump himself, who does a better job of poking holes in his own legacy and Washington than all of them combined.
The premiere Sunday of Showtime’s animated series “Our Cartoon President” is the latest contender to join the fray, this time in prime time, of TV satirists and their unwitting comedic inspirations in Washington.
But in the first two episodes provided for review, it struggles (like POTUS and the public) to stay focused on a presidency that’s whipped the news cycle into a landscape-flattening cyclone and turned our attention spans to Cheeto dust.
It’s a notable attempt given that Stephen Colbert co-created the 10-episode, half-hour series, spinning it out of a semi-regular feature on his “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” So really, if anyone could render this shooting-fish-in-a-barrel concept fresh and smart, it should have been him given his career trajectory from “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” correspondent to David Letterman successor.
The problem with “Our Cartoon President” is that it’s mining the same material as everyone else, including Colbert on his own show (not to mention Comedy Central’s “The President Show,”) and it only hits the mark about a third of the time.
From the title forward, the idea itself is dated, which puts the show in the position of catching up with a comedy world that long ago blew past the absurdity of a reality star in the Oval Office, and has moved on to reacting in real time to the day’s and week’s events.
The writing here is smart and folds in plenty of commentary on this administration’s dysfunctional relationship with the press, the Democrats and its own party problems. But unlike comedians or hosts who deliver similar satire on stage in smaller bites, this is weighted down by characters so clumsy and clueless (Trump’s sons, for example) it brings the humor down to a “Beavis and Butthead” level — in 2018.
This show, co-created by Chris Licht, Matt Lapin, Tim Luecke and RJ Fried, is a fast-moving parody featuring caricatures of the Capitol Hill gang more akin to “The Simpsons” than “The West Wing,” which is not a bad thing. It highlights the unabashed buffoonery of a president who subsists on fast food, is still obsessed with his electoral win and can’t seem to hold one thought for more than 30 seconds without interrupting himself.
Animated versions of Trump family members and advisors — daughter Ivanka, son-in-law Jared Kushner, sons Eric and Donald Jr. and wife Melania— orbit him, but their interactions tend to make this more of goofy family drama than incisive political commentary. The self-obsessed Trump here is as dismissive of his own family as he is of those pesky facts that undermine whatever he just said, and it’s a dynamic that’s not all that surprising or funny.
The best bits are when Trump, voiced wonderfully by Jeff Bergman, leaves the safety of his own sycophantic clan. For instance, there is a national disaster. He doesn’t care until he’s informed it involves white people. He flies to the disaster site, waves, throws out some supplies from the doors of Air Force One and leaves. He complains later about how everyone else has it so easy compared to him: “I had to fly hours and hours to get there, when the people on the ground are already at the disaster site.”
Other, more successful moments, come when the show looks at the ripple effect of his presidency. It parodies “Fox & Friends,” who start their daily show with “It’s 6 a.m., Mr President. Rise and shine, and I love you!” A spoof of the ticks of the host of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” is better than many of those on Trump’s tighter circle.
Jeff Sessions is, however, far more entertaining as a fictional gnome-like creature, as is Stephen Miller as a dark and demonic presence. Awkward interactions between John Kelly, Mitch McConnell and Ben Carson in the Trump decision room are also worth the watch, as are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s programmed grins any time anyone utters the word “progressive.”
Still, “Our Cartoon President” fails to outshine the billion other shows tackling similar themes, or the absurd antics of the White House it aims to satirize.
‘Our Cartoon President’
When: 8 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)