tv review

What Was the Point of Who Is America?

Cohen and his new friend, enjoying an episode of Girls. Photo: Showtime

The title of Who Is America? implied that Sacha Baron Cohen’s brand of sneak-attack comedy would expose something revelatory about the nature of the American identity circa 2018. But mostly, this Showtime series, whose season finale aired Sunday night, told us things about this country that we already knew. It did so in a way that was at times brilliant and jaw-dropping, and other times juvenile, played out, and in poor taste. Sometimes, as was the case in the season-finale segment that trained a Trump supporter to blow up a liberal at the Women’s March, it was all of that at once.

Before Who Is America? made its debut on Showtime in July, advance media coverage focused on aggrieved interview subjects like former congressman Joe Walsh and Sarah Palin, who said they had been duped into appearing on the program. (Palin never actually made the final cut, aside from one wry mention in the credits of Sunday’s finale: “Special Publicity Consultant (Inadvertent).”) All the noise about Baron Cohen deceiving politicians was pretty quickly exposed for what it really was: people who had made themselves look foolish blaming Baron Cohen for their own foolishness.

Almost every Baron Cohen sketch — whether he was assuming the role of conservative Pizzagater Billy Wayne Ruddick, radical liberal Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, or Israeli terrorism expert Erran Morad — was a game of chicken in which he dared sources to either tell him he was full of shit or refuse to play along. Some, like Ted Koppel, Utah Republican Assembly director David Pyne, and former congressman Barney Frank — actually shut him down. More often than not, though, when Baron Cohen opened the door for politicians and regular citizens to do or say blatantly racist, homophobic, or inflammatory things, all he had to do was step out of the way as they raced across that threshold with zero hesitation. As he did during his years of assuming interrogatory alter egos on Da Ali G Show, Baron Cohen proved over seven episodes that he still possesses great shape-shifting talent and a sense of audacity so outsized that it renders restraint futile. Especially in the latter half of the season, that second quality tended to work to the show’s detriment.

What did we learn about America from this exercise? That some of its residents are proudly prejudiced and willing to believe outlandish things, as long as they sync up with their worldviews. That’s not even remotely news, but Baron Cohen’s ability to coax people into putting their extremism on display could be darkly funny and genuinely shocking. I knew there were gun nuts in this country. Did I think gun-rights advocates and Republicans would go on camera and advocate for the arming of kindergarteners? Call me naïve, but I didn’t, nor did I expect a grown man — Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America — to sincerely say, on national television, that 4-year-olds have elevated levels of a pheromone called Blink-182 without questioning the veracity of what he was reading. Of everything this show did, that “Kinder-Guardians” portion of the first episode remains the most absurd, incisive, and blistering achievement of Who Is America?, the segment that will be cited in arguments about gun control and played in montages about this moment in pop culture and politics for years to come.

But not every segment was as biting and inspiring. Especially in the second half of the season, Who Is America? became repetitive and stale. In the second episode, when Baron Cohen’s Morad coaxed Georgia Republican Jason Spencer into dropping his pants and screaming the N-word in the name of fighting terrorism, it had precisely the disturbing effect that shock comedy is supposed to have. The segment also had the effect that some political observers may have desired: It shamed Spencer into resigning his position in the state’s House of Representatives. (He was already on his way out, having lost in the primaries earlier this year.)

Baron Cohen went back to that same well a few too many times, repeatedly persuading conservatives to display their bigotry under the guise of defending America. The lengthy bit in the finale in which men were trained by Morad to seem liberal so they could go undercover at the Women’s March was emblematic of how quickly those bits could go from hilarious to grossly childish. I burst out laughing when Morad schooled the three men on Girls — a TV series he insisted was a favorite of left-wingers — and had them chant “Marnie! Marnie! Marnie!” so they wouldn’t forget the name of Allison Williams’s character. But I rolled my eyes a few seconds later when, in the name of fitting in with the lefties, the trainees tried to show their hatred of Donald Trump by jamming dildos into a nearly life-sized Trump doll.

Jokes that involve gay sex have long been part of Baron Cohen’s repertoire. On Who Is America?, they were used to highlight the homophobia and hypocrisy of those who have zero tolerance for the LGBTQ community, yet won’t hesitate to give a fake blow job if that’s what it takes to defeat the antifa movement. But Baron Cohen relies on that sort of humor to a degree that negates whatever satirical point he’s trying to make. In the finale, when Morad and a man named Glenn dress in drag and pretend to be lesbian protesters, complete with pink pussy hats, it’s funny that a guy who surely prides himself on being a red-blooded American male is so easily convinced to transform into a queer woman. But like all the business with the dildos, the joke also traffics in the notion that there’s something inherently amusing about what being gay or lesbian looks like. Cohen is so smart that it’s hard to understand why he and his writers still gravitate toward humor like this, which is both outmoded, unimaginative, and frankly immature.

The show’s attempts to expose the ludicrousness of modern celebrity — handled in the segments that feature Baron Cohen as jet-setting photographer Gio Monaldo — were usually more toothless than not. Baron Cohen’s big get in the finale was O.J. Simpson, who displays his signature blasé attitude about the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman when Gio repeatedly makes jokes about the case. After a while, Simpson simply shouts, “Stop!” to make Monaldo/Baron Cohen cease with the innuendos. What starts out as a wow segment fizzles pretty quickly because Simpson doesn’t voluntarily embarrass himself too much.

Ultimately, Who Is America? was a flawed, mostly entertaining, and occasionally near-genius test of how shameless certain Americans have become. At long last, Baron Cohen told us, there are a lot of people out there with no sense of decency. But what was the point, beyond getting us to see how extremely true that is? Honestly, not much, although the last episode does demonstrate the danger in that shamelessness when Glenn, at Morad’s behest, agrees to blow up a protester. It never seems to occur to him while he’s standing there in a pussy hat, the woman he thinks he just killed — but didn’t really kill — looks no different from him.

What Was the Point of Who Is America?