‘Who is America’ shows flashes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s brilliance
He’s back. Ali G, Borat, Admiral General Aladeen, the guy who really should have starred in the upcoming Freddie Mercury biopic — better known as the iconic, irreverent Sacha Baron Cohen. Like pretty much every comedian in the country, he is trying his hand at exploring Trump-era America on a new Showtime show aptly called “Who is America?” While none of the characters he portrays are as downright hilarious as any of the aforementioned ones, the series premiere ranges from uncomfortable to absolutely terrifying in very SBC fashion.
The half-hour episode is divided roughly into four sections, during each of which Cohen plays a different caricature aimed at poking fun at a certain political or social class.
His first is Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, an Alex Jones-esque conspiracy theorist who interviews Vermont senator and ex-candidate Bernie Sanders. While the segment falls short on delivering hard-hitting satire, it provides a wonderful series of gif-able reactions from a visibly befuddled Sanders, who (bless him) patiently tries to comprehend any of the nonsense Ruddick spews about economic theory and the finite energy in one’s body.
Next, Cohen plays Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a hyper-progressive NPR host. He visits the home of a South Carolina-based Trump delegate and her husband and has a dinner which he starts with a “tribal chant” and then fills with a couple of ridiculous stories about everything from urinating to a particularly disturbing story about a dolphin. Like Sanders, this couple patiently tries to sort through Cohen’s over-the-top cariacature.
In what is perhaps my biggest pet peeve with much of Cohen’s work, he becomes slightly too self-indulgent and reliant on shock humor in this segment, making it unclear just exactly what the point of it was in the first place. The segment is not quite surreal in an Eric André sense, but devolves into crass storytelling after setting up an intriguing premise.
The third segment features the character of Rick Sherman, a British ex-con turned artist who visits an art gallery in California to discuss his work with Christy, a fine art curator. Once again, Cohen employs quite a bit of toilet humor, as Sherman’s art is primarily made from a variety of bodily fluids. In what is ostensibly a satire of the art world’s supposed pretension and detachment, Christy seems the exact opposite, and it is interesting to contemplate to what extent she is just being open-minded, versus outwitting Cohen himself.
The final segment is the episode’s crowning achievement, featuring Cohen as Erran Morad, an Israeli military figure and ardent gun enthusiast. In conversations with gun rights activists such as Philip Van Cleave and Larry Pratt, he tries to promote a program called “Kinderguardians,” in which little children as young as three and four years old are taught about the usage of guns. In a segment full of memorable quotations, it is incredibly difficult to fathom just how absurd the aforementioned activist’s endorsement of the fictional program is, as well as stunning moments such as the implied condoning of marital rape and Islamophobic violence. Even worse, a series of current and ex-Congressman appear to endorse the program, with others espousing the importance of hormones such as “Blink-182.” This segment is shocking while remaining believable, and sees Cohen at his best.
The final segment alone makes this rather hit-or-miss episode a worthy watch, and previews of future episodes with figures such as Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney seem equally promising. It is unclear whether a master of satire like Sacha Baron Cohen is even necessary given our current reality, but if there’s anyone with a proven track record to make it work, it’s him.