No one comes out of a Sacha Baron Cohen show looking good. Your mere presence on Showtime’s Who Is America? means you’ve already been duped by a guy in a costume. It’s an impossible game to win, but some guests make it out relatively unscathed by refusing to play along.
The people who look the worst on Who Is America? tend to look that way because they are the worst — egged on by Baron Cohen’s characters, they reveal their own deeply held, morally repugnant beliefs. Or, just as bad, they reveal that they’re willing to say morally repugnant things in order to be on television. Here is a ranking of all the guests in Who Is America? episode six, from those who leave with their reputations intact, to those who … do not.
7. Dr. Francis Collins
Poor Francis Collins, a scientist and devout Christian who has spent his career helping advance the understanding of genetics — his gentle soul feels like unfair game for Sacha Baron Cohen’s tricks. The National Institutes of Health director acquits himself perfectly when faced with Billy Wayne Ruddick, calmly explaining that no causal relationship exists between trans-fats and being transgender. He also seems genuinely concerned that the loathsome person sitting across from him has accidentally contracted HIV while trying to prove that it doesn’t exist. Sure, some of Cohen’s jokes as Ruddick landed well in this segment, but the world would be a better place if Collins were off studying the human genome instead of wasting his time here.
6. Jill Stein
Perhaps it says something about political temperaments in general that when liberals get confused by Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters, they try to help out, and when conservatives do, they generally get flustered and indignant. Green Party candidate Jill Stein keeps her cool throughout questioning from Billy Wayne Ruddick on global warming, though she does get slightly prickly when he insists on being called doctor — she’s a doctor, too, she points out. It’s unclear when Who Is America was filmed, but you’d think that questions about Stein’s own financial interests and the investigation into her campaign’s potential collusion with Russia could have been touched on in search of better fireworks. As it was, she seemed pleasant and patient, with just a hint of condescension.
5. Howard Dean
Former presidential hopeful Howard Dean isn’t running for office anymore, so he has the luxury of being a little looser on camera with Billy Wayne. His appearance is just slightly more damning than those above him because he seems to entertain the idea — goofily, not seriously — that Hillary Clinton might actually be a man. Maybe that’s just a public figure’s defense mechanism kicking in: Instead of arguing with Ruddick, Dean humors him, saying “We’re not gonna find out” and “Maybe the trouser presser did a lousy job.” Or maybe he was just tickled by that bad Photoshop job of Clinton’s pants.
4. Gretchen Rossi and Slade Smiley
Reality stars seem like easy prey for Sacha Baron Cohen, because their chosen career path basically means that they’ll do or say pretty much anything to be on TV. That said, this Real Housewives couple doesn’t look any more foolish here than they normally do. (The guy’s name is Slade Smiley, so the bar for foolishness is already low.) The segment worked because they were a blank canvas for Erran Morad to make fun of Smiley and hit on Rossi, rather than as a means to indict their lives or careers. The grossest thing Slade does is introduce himself by saying “I like to sleep with housewives,” which is probably something he says about 40 times a week, having married two Housewives. Rossi lets slip a homophobic slur, but she’s quoting something that someone online said about Slade, not using it entirely herself. Not to judge them solely by their looks and chosen profession — but not to not do that, either — but they could have fared a lot worse.
3. Ataana Badilli
It’s a little harder for non-public figures to find themselves damned by Who Is America, though somebody who bills himself as a “spiritual healer” based out of Las Vegas is immediately suspect. Ataana Badilli’s biggest crime here is humoring Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello’s notion of a “sexist birth” via his “momb” at all, but even a completely bonkers idea deserves spiritual healing if there’s a paycheck, apparently. In accepting the job, he says, “I feel I can support you throughout the process,” which translates as, “I’ll sit here and not laugh as a woman extricates a doll that you’ve shoved up your ass.” At least Badilli intervenes when she brings in WD-40 (“Maybe another oil?”) and shows some concern at the beginning about potential infection. But when the supposedly liberal Cain-N’Degeocello threatens his cleaning lady/doula with deportation if she won’t deliver his baby, Badilli says nothing. Whether this is a credit or a demerit is hard to say, but he does finally appear to bail on the whole thing when the woman’s hand gets stuck in what we can only hope is Baron Cohen’s false bottom.
2. Jan Brewer
Baron Cohen must have gotten very little usable material from former Arizona governor and ardent Trump supporter Jan Brewer, since her segment with as OMGWhizzBoyOMG was relegated to a super short mid-credits run. Still, in just over a minute, she manages to opine that all machine guns should be legal, and that an adult with a mental age of three who expresses a desire for ethnic cleansing should be able to buy one. So… points for concision of moral repugnance?
1. Bill Jilla
Just when the episode appeared to be fairly light on damnation for its guests, along comes Bill Jilla, a food critic for DinnerReviews.com whose online bio says that he has “traveled the world, graciously enjoying the fringe benefits offered only to a person with his A-Lister experience and credentials.” (In other words, a prime candidate to make an ass of himself in order to get just a whiff of celebrity.) But what at first seems just be another emperor’s-new-clothes sendup of overblown art worship — in this case, the art of cooking — becomes something more frightening. Sure, a dull food critic might be wowed by beans on toast, as cooked and introduced by a scary former inmate. And there’s nothing too harmful or weird about eating braised veal served in a strawberry-flavored condom — there’s probably a restaurant doing something dumber right this minute. But when Baron Cohen’s Rick Sherman serves Jilla a course that he claims is meat from a human — specifically a “vegetarian-fed Chinese dissident” — Jilla has no compunction about diving right in, and vigorously. “Who needs a knife?” he says. “It’s melting on my palate.” Even after some time to reflect and digest, he just doubles down, offering his thanks to the family of the person he supposedly just ate.