Things have gotten bad when the animated sitcom version of a president is somehow more coherent and human than the real thing. And yet that seems to be exactly where we have found ourselves with the debut of Showtime’s “Our Cartoon President,” a half-hour comedy based on a bit from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” The sharply drawn sitcom makes alarmingly accurate caricatures out of the Trump Administration, from Melania Trump’s sloping cheekbones to Eric Trump’s perpetually open mouth.
But while the character studies — and voice performances — are eerily accurate, the satire is surprisingly restrained. “Our Cartoon President” appears to love its First Family a little too much to really skewer it. The sitcom draws from current events for much of its storytelling — the premiere episode is about the State of the Union, and the details about the Mueller investigation are surprisingly fresh. Yet at its core “Our Cartoon President” feels like “Family Guy,” with Trump as Peter Griffin: In the show’s imagining, Trump is a bumbling idiot, but a mostly harmless and sometimes even adorable one. This is an attractive idea, because it makes our current national nightmare feel comprehensible. But while that view has some merit, it mostly just feels that “Our Cartoon President” is fiddling merrily while the ship goes down.
The sitcom knows it has a problem, because the first episode starts with the cartoon president addressing the camera. “So why is this show called ‘Our Cartoon President’? No one knows! But I’d like to think that’s because we’re all in this together, folks. Each and every one of you voted for me, and the ones who didn’t, you kinda wanted to see what would happen. And it’s happening! More than you could’ve imagined. Now, some are worried that this show might humanize me. Well, too late, folks. … I am a human being, and there’s no cure for that.”
It’s less an introduction than a disclaimer — an admonition! — and watching the first two episodes, it becomes clear why. “Our Cartoon President” excels at mocking media — be it “Fox & Friends” or Rachel Maddow — and offers brilliant glimpses of the inner turmoil and moral compromise of the people around Trump. Ivanka Trump, for example, speaks entirely in corporate-feminist buzzwords (“My values are American values, and the duty love family smart, good scarves, fragrance children, inspiration and genuine human emotions, with Ivanka Trump. Soft shell outerwear with belt for all!”), while Don, Jr. keeps bursting into tears and then laments that his eyes are turning “gay.”
But the show has no idea what to do with Trump himself. Which is strange, because in mapping out his character, “Our Cartoon President” knows him very well; his doddering cluelessness makes him approachable, while cowardice, graft, and narcissism lurk at the edges of his jokes. (In one throwaway gag, Trump avoids a $35 per-person debt to a crowd of angry employees by ordering a drone strike on them.) And yet the humor about him posits that what is offensive about Trump is his fake tan, his belly, his overlong tie — instead of, you know, the litany of terrible things he has said and done.
It’s surreal — an alternate universe, a desperate fantasy of what Trump is that demonstrates a refusal to grapple with who the man really is. The president is surprisingly well voiced by Jeff Bergman, who adds personality to a role that has become a go-to for celebrity impersonators. But “Our Cartoon President’s” lighthearted humor about Trump displays a lack of anger so potent it is alienating. What president are they seeing, that they aren’t tearing their hair out with rage? Surely, the stakes are too high to be following along with the latest constitutional crisis like it’s an episode of “South Park.” And yet “Our Cartoon President” is so insistently breezy that one’s own righteous anger seems irrelevant — as if the show is gaslighting outrage.
This especially comes through the portrayal of the Trump marriage, which in real life has been publicly strained. “Our Cartoon President” does not avoid that Donald Trump slept with a porn star during his marriage to Melania, but even her wifely anger — surely, a bipartisan righteous rage — is minimized to fond acceptance. In the premiere episode’s most confusing subplot, Trump seeks to buy Melania a birthday present — which is also to serve partially as an apology for cheating on her with Stormy Daniels. But before he even attempts his gift-giving, the two are shown in bed, holding hands and chatting while Trump watches his favorite show, “Fox & Friends.”
It’s mindboggling: The show vacillates between scathingly funny and frustratingly softball, which suggests it could be funnier about Trump, but for some reason it’s restraining itself. Other characters do not get a similar pass — in one really inspired scene, Melania and Karen Pence have an uncomfortable dinner, which inspires the Vice President and his wife to share the story of why their beloved laundry basket is buried in the backyard. Maddow, in an animated spoof of her show, is thoroughly roasted; Ted Cruz, occasionally wearing underwear on his head, discovers the interesting habit of brushing your teeth.
Which raises the question of who, exactly, is expected to laugh along at “Our Cartoon President.” In fact, that became my total experience of the show: wondering who felt unfettered enough to enjoy the daily foibles of the Trump presidency. Perhaps “Our Cartoon President” presents the man that Trump supporters say they voted for: A clueless, but generally well-meaning man, grounded by the Republican leadership around him and his own family. Or perhaps the show is for the apolitical, who distrust all politicians with equal venom.
Maybe the crew behind “Our Cartoon President” hopes to attract the president himself. Much is made, throughout the first two episodes, of the president’s attachment to anything televised. At the end of the credits to the second episode, the screen goes black except for a blurry reflection of Cartoon Donald holding the remote — as if he is sitting in front of the TV, not you. It’s an unsettling image, and a kind of portentous one, too: Our Dear Leader is always watching.