tv review

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? Isn’t Just Fake News

A disguised Sacha Baron Cohen in the best sketch in the first episode of Who Is America? Photo: Showtime

In a piece published ahead of the debut of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series Who Is America?, Vox writer Aja Romano expressed concern about how Baron Cohen’s comedy will translate at a time when legitimate news is frequently branded fake by President Trump and other public figures.

“These politicians,” Romano wrote, referring to people like Sarah Palin and far-right failed Senate candidate Roy Moore, who have expressed outrage over being “duped” by Baron Cohen’s disguises, “were tricked into appearing on the record as themselves, in a way that further perpetuates and entrenches not only the cultural ideological divide, but the idea among conservatives that ‘liberal’ media, including entertainment media like Baron Cohen’s production, is a constant and perpetual trap to be distrusted at all costs.”

Before watching the first episode of Who Is America?, I had similar concerns. When Baron Cohen first rose to prominence on Da Ali G Show by assuming the identities of three roving interviewers — the nonsense-spouting Ali G, socially clueless Borat, and fashion snob Brüno — it was a pre-social media era in which duping others registered, at least to some, as a sly act of comedic rebellion. In a post-Jerky Boys, pre-Punk’d world, Da Ali G Show fit right in while taking the act of pranking to more daring and sophisticated levels. Much of Baron Cohen’s shtick involved saying blatantly outrageous or foolish things to his subjects, who usually seemed befuddled or offended. (There were exceptions, like the Arizonans who sang along with Borat’s blatantly anti-Semitic song “Throw the Jew Down the Well,” a bit that demonstrated how easily people will go along with a crowd even in the face of hatred.)

The joke of Da Ali G Show was how easily high-profile people would agree appear on camera with idiots, and how far and for how long Baron Cohen could push his form of idiocracy. The show was meant to shove back against societal norms and gauge what it took to break them. It is hard to imagine how that particular type of comedy could work now, when the idea of a guy being applauded for a song about throwing Jews down wells, for example, seems more like an actual outrageous incident than an act of squirmy social commentary on a sketch comedy series. But after watching the premiere half-hour of Who Is America?, I started to see how Baron Cohen’s approach might — and I emphasize might because I have only seen one episode — play an effective role in ringing alarm bells about off-the-rail politics, and for precisely the reason that initially concerned me: because the notion of violating norms has become far more extreme in 2018.

In Who Is America?, Baron Cohen invents four new alter egos: Billy Wayne Ruddick, a far right pseudo-journalist who runs a conspiracy-theory-spouting website; Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, an NPR-T-shirt wearing caricature of liberal extremism; Rick Sherman, a British ex-convict who makes art out of his own feces; and Colonel Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terror expert with some extreme views on gun violence. As noted by Vulture’s Jesse David Fox, Rick Sherman is the least interesting of these characters and his portion of the episode is the least amusing. Two others, at least in this first half-hour, are very much in keeping with Baron Cohen’s approach in Da Ali G Show.

Although Billy Wayne Ruddick is very much a believable product of these times — he says he wants to take down the “mainstream media” and believes that Obamacare is flawed because it forced him to go to the doctor and get diagnosed with diabetes — operates in pretty much the same manner as Ali G or Borat. In the first episode, he sits down with Bernie Sanders and attempts to make the ridiculous mathematical point that the 99 percent could easily join the one percent if someone would just move some numbers around, while Sanders politely tells him that his equations make no sense. In the end, Ruddick comes across looking far more foolish than Sanders does, and what’s funny is how stupid he sounds.

To a more complicated extent, that’s true in the second sketch, too. In that one, Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello — who’s so liberal that he apologizes for being a white cisgender male — visits with a pair of Trump supporters and does everything he possibly can to play into the most ludicrous liberal stereotypes. He says that he and his partner allow their daughter to “free bleed” on to the American flag when she has her period, a decision that led them to create the Menstrual Flag Program, sponsored by the Clinton Foundation. He also says he has an open relationship with his partner, which enables her to continue having sex with porpoises.

You might expect a pair of South Carolina conservatives to toss Cain-N’Degeocello out of their home immediately — the husband seems like he might consider as much — but the wife seems so intent on presenting a good face that she responds to everything he says with almost zero judgment. On one hand, their willingness to think any of this is true suggests they must believe that liberals exist in some bizarre, anything goes, dolphin-screwing realm that makes them fundamentally different humans. On the other, though, their ability to calmly listen to this guy speaks to their sense of propriety and civility. The fact that Baron Cohen’s alter ego says things that are obviously out of bounds reinforces the idea that there are, in fact, norms upon which a conservative couple and the liberal audience watching Who Is America? can agree. The country may be divided, but I feel like we can all come together as a nation and declare that it’s very weird for a woman to want to have sex with Flipper. (There’s both a Free Willy and a Shape of Water joke in all this somewhere.)

In its way, Da Ali G Show also reinforced norms, even during Baron Cohen’s interviews with opinionated politicians. When Ali G once asked Newt Gingrich whether a woman might ever be president, Gingrich said yes without hesitation. Then, when the hip-hop wannabe laid out reasons why women couldn’t serve in such an office — because they’d be too preoccupied with facials or shopping — Gingrich batted them away. “I think if you said that to most women who could be president, you’d be surprised how tough they are.” He sounded incredibly rational, far more rational than he does these days. He said what most Americans would agree is right.

In another episode of Da Ali G Show, even extreme conservative Pat Buchanan came across as reasonable while explaining to Ali G that if the American people make a mistake and elect an inept president, they either have to live with it for four years or convince Congress to get rid of him. “We have rules,” Buchanan said, “whereby we can throw out the president.” The idea that there are “rules” that protect the many from one lunatic is something that, at the time, sounded like common sense. By asking a question that seemed a little out there, Baron Cohen actually highlighted the notion that there are lines in society that everyone, regardless of party, agrees that we should not cross.

Which brings me to the most controversial and brilliant sketch in the first episode: “Kill or Be Killed,” which introduces Colonel Erran Morad, a gun-crazy Israeli anti-terrorism expert who sounds a bit like a Hebrew Arnold Schwarzenegger and, thanks to the use of heavy prosthetics, makes Baron Cohen look like a deeply angry Freddie Mercury.

In the segment, Morad advocates for a program called Kinderguardians, which teaches preschoolers how to use guns. (“The NRA wants to arm the teachers,” Morad says. “This is crazy! They should arm the children.”) With the help of real-life gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave, he makes a promotional video for “Gunimals,” weapons tricked out with plush animals in order to appeal to the youngest possible potential NRA members. Then Morad lobbies government officials on Capitol Hill to support the program.

Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican from Florida, expresses skepticism about voicing support for a highly controversial program based on a brief meeting with Morad, but others — former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Represenative Joe Wilson, and former representative/professional blowhard Joe Walsh — all happily throw their support behind it. “In less than a month,” Walsh says with enormous conviction, “a first-grader can become a first grenader.”

In other words, Baron Cohen invites each of these men to cross the line of what most people would agree is acceptable. They not only cross it, but do so at high velocity with smiles on their faces. You keep waiting for someone to do what Sanders does early in the episode, or what Newt Gingrich did years ago on Da Ali G Show: explain that what’s been asked to say is wrong and unacceptable. The fact that almost no one does — and that some of them, especially Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus of the lobbying group Gun Owners of America, push the rhetoric even further — is darkly funny. It’s also disturbing. Is it surprising? Sadly, no.

Walsh is among those who have already publicly complained about being deceived by Baron Cohen. He told CNN that he believed he was receiving an award from Israel and read certain statements about kids using guns as part of what he thought was a video focused on “innovative products Israel has invented.” That may be what happened, but even so, at what point do you decide that the words you’re saying go against your principles and refuse to read them?

When compared to the antics on Da Ali G Show, “Kill or Be Killed” is especially striking because it casts Baron Cohen’s character as the straight man while his interview subjects unwittingly provide all the “jokes.” That’s why, if it consistently works, Who Is America? may turn out to be effective satire: It reminds us that some of the people running the country, or at least those spouting the rhetoric that fuels partisan debate, sound a lot dumber than Ali G did in 2003. Nothing strips an idea or a person of their power faster than exposing their absurdity.

Of course, as we saw during the 2016 presidential election and have seen many times since, what should sound universally absurd can still manage to be taken seriously by large enough sliver of the population to affect us all. Doing what Sacha Baron Cohen is trying to do in this fraught climate is really tricky, and my instinct tells me it won’t work more often than it does. Still, as a viewer who senses that the standard attempts to poke fun at our Trumpian political culture already feel played out, I’m intrigued to watch how he navigates this minefield. When Who Is America? is on point, as it is in the “Kill or Be Killed” segment, it doesn’t just remind us that some of our emperors have no clothes. It exposes them for walking around naked with no sense of shame whatsoever.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? Isn’t Just Fake News