In one early scene in the new Showtime series Our Cartoon President, our orange-coiffed tyrant of a supreme leader is perched and pj-ed in his extravagant bed, scrolling through TV channels, quickly dismissing most — “fake news, fake news, fake news … fake weather” — before landing on his go-to comfy-chair show, Fox & Friends. One wonders what the White House would think, bumping into this latest satirical attack on his character? And another question: Is this farce, reality TV, or both? You be the judge.
At some other, saner moment in America’s political history, the notion of a satirical cartoon series on a POTUS might have seemed daring or outlandish — maybe even treasonous (by a misdemeanor standard). But in the present conditions, with a leader widely considered a psychotic clown, finger on the “nukular” trigger, and an unapologetic indulger of hate-mongering who has angered the known world and plunged American into a sour global reputation, this cartoon adventure seems almost redundant. If anything, one of the downsides of the show is the dizzying competition already on the air and airwaves, and on the everyday conversation index of the masses the world over.
For one, many of us get our nightly fix of Trump bashing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where interviews with the cartoon Trump were the basis for this series, which also has Colbert in the executive producer’s and cocreator’s seat (and also making a voice cameo as Sergeant at Arms of the House). Heading over to the trenchant commentaries of Samantha Bee or John Oliver, the subject of Trump and his latest outrages can be both addictive and numbing. In effect, the neurotically attention- and screen-time-seeking president has won, if it’s true that any publicity is good publicity.
And now, he enters the lofty and lowly dimension of cartoon culture. The season premiere opens with the Man (expertly voiced by Jeff Bergman), invoking the fourth-wall clause by saying, “This is Showtime, right? So I can say ‘shithole’ …”
At one point, the cartoon president gains a hunger for the “wartime, baby”; he tells a meeting with military heads, “Gimme that nukular football,” which becomes a running (literally) gag in the show. We laugh; we cry; we cringe. In another subplot, his doofus sons Donald Jr. and Eric appear on Sean Hannity’s show and betray their father’s wish to avoid the hot-potato subject of Russia, and Donald Sr. gives Melania (Cody Lindquist) a dubious anniversary gift of a night out with Karen Pence (conversing with her is “like talking to a human shower curtain,” says the cartoon president).
In a State of the Union bull session at the White House, with a jumbo-eared Jeff Sessions and a squinty-eyed and Mr. Magoo-ishly mumbly Ben Carson in tow, the president is urged to use his first address as a way to make a bold statement — as presidents FDR, LBJ, and others have in the past — and up his approval ratings. He delivers said address from inside a fire truck (for dramatic effect), insulting the intelligence of the nation in the cartoonish setting, but with obvious links to what actually happened. The line between chilling realities and cartoon hyper-reality are blurred.
The closing song, under the credits, is eerily simple, repeating the still-frightening phrase “Donald Trump is the president.” The lyric modulates and searches for resolution just as many of us are still in a state of arrested disbelief about the song’s statement of fact.
Our Cartoon President has a precedent, in the Trey Parker/Matt Stone Comedy Central show That’s My Bush! of 2001, and the new show syncs up with the brand of snarky humor firmly rooted in Family Guy and the toothier episodes of The Simpsons. The scare factor underlying this latest addition to TV’s takes on Trump follies relates to its proximity to the chilling non-cartoon world over which the Trumpster has dominion for a few more years. We can’t just change the channel on that.