For a show that we didn’t even know existed a week ago, Who Is America has produced headlines grabbing righteous indignation. Sacha Baron Cohen, the man who gave us Ali G and Borat is back to his old tricks. But the thing is, that’s what they are: old tricks.
Dressing up as over the top characters is his signature move, and a piece of performance art in itself. Drawing unsuspecting marks into uncomfortable situations and making them comfortable enough to talk but uncomfortable enough as to make them visibly squirm is stock in trade.
What makes Who Is America different is that he’s going after a wide swath of political actors. The premiere episode featured Bernie Sanders as well as several congressmen and high-profile gun lobbyists. And we know Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and Roy Moore will be making appearances because they’ve come out and admitted it, and condemned being duped.
Basically Showtime’s marketing department was able to take a long lunch and let them do all the work promoting the show.
This time around, Cohen isn’t portraying one character, he’s developed one for each scenario. No doubt lots of time and effort went into creating a verifiable background for each one in case any of the people he tried to get close to did any semblance of research.
In the premiere episode he takes on four characters. One as a recently released inmate who makes art using bodily secretions, an NPR loving liberal, a mathematically challenged right-winger against government, and an ex-Mossad agent.
They each work to varying degrees of success, but none of them grow on you.
Unfair & Balanced
The premiere skits took aim at liberals twice and conservatives twice. And while it’s all cringeworthy, some of it is fair game, some of it is just plain mean.
In going after Bernie Sanders he appeared as a conservative counterweight to the socialist senator. He didn’t get Bern to say anything outlandish or commit to a clearly ridiculous policy. The only thing stupid Sanders did was agree to the interview.
The longest skit focused on gun control, where he appears as a virulently pro-gun ex-Mossad agent who wants to arm four-year-olds (anything else is too young, they point out that they’re called the ‘terrible twos’ for a reason).
Cohen gets gun rights lobbyists to not only state on camera that arming toddlers is a good idea, but also to make a kid friendly video teaching them how to use weaponized puppets to kill off bad guys at their school.
Several congressmen also endorse this idea. Honestly, several congressional aides should lose their job for letting their bosses do this. Only one congressman said he would need more information and not endorse some random policy from some random guy who scored an interview.
In our view, all this is fair game. These are public figures who have made similar statements before. There are no hidden cameras. While they are given scripts (for the kid video and the endorsements), no one is coerced.
Things get a bit more dicey for the subjects in the other two vignettes. The NPR loving character dines with a couple of Republicans to discuss differences and find common ground. They were delegates at the 2016 GOP nominating convention. So they are public-ish figures. They knew they were to be on camera with someone of an opposing political view.
The scene is reminiscent of the dinner party scene in Borat. This time no one loses their temper, and the hosts show amazing restraint and graciousness. But when he discusses how his wife is cheating on him with a porpoise, you start to feel like he’s getting desperate to get material out of the scene. There’s good cringeworthy and bad cringeworthy, and this was bad.
I Don’t Know If It’s Art
But that was nothing compared to the art dealer. He comes in as a recently released convict who learned to make art in prison.. by using his own excrement and fluids.
This woman was nice, encouraging, and open-minded. She finds his work to be groundbreaking and genuinely wants to help him succeed post prison. When he suggests that she donate a few strands of her pubic hair to his paintbrush, she’s all in.
This just felt needlessly mean-spirited.
Short & BitterSweet
Obviously the point is to make things as uncomfortable for the interview subjects as possible, seeing what you can get them to say when they’re on camera and afraid of just walking out. You also get the feeling that’s why the vignettes are usually pretty short.
The title asks the big question: Who Is America? But you don’t get the feeling that Cohen is all that interested in finding the answer.
He seems more interested in just shaming people. But the joke’s on him. Shame no longer exists. Maybe that is his ultimate point.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
A Sam Adams beer. Named after an American Patriot (or so its marketing would have us believe, we just drink it, we don’t Google it), the beverage, kinda like the show, uses America to sell itself.