The comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen has always been at somewhat of a crossroad. Hinging almost entirely on the comedian’s uncanny ability to dupe unsuspecting victims into embarrassing themselves on camera, its sensibilities range from genius to moronic, witty to asinine. This has been the case since his breakout mockumentary Borat, and it’s just as true for his latest project, Showtime’s 7-episode Who Is America?
In this highly-publicized endeavor, Cohen dons not one, but six unique characters, each one a caricature of a certain political leaning or ideology. Most prominent among the bunch are Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr, PhD- ardent Trump supporter and denouncer of “fake news” CNN, Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello- “self-hating straight white male” who is “cycling through our fractured nation to heal the divide”, and Erran Morad- a former Israeli counterintelligence agent that was definitely not in the Mossad.
Dressed as each of these characters, Cohen meets and interviews prominent politicians, celebrities, and everyday Americans alike, mostly to embarrass them or expose their prejudices. As Billy Wayne, Cohen tricks meetings out of predominantly liberal politicians and figureheads (including Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein), lampooning ultra-right conspiracy theories in front of them and essentially sitting back to watch their reactions. These incidents are by far the most tame and amusing of the bunch. The liberals that “Billy Wayne” meets with seem to unanimously see through his disguise and refuse to seriously engage with his antics.
Under the guise of Dr. Nira and Erran Morad are where Cohen captures the most hilarious (and most surreally horrifying) material. As Erran Morad, Cohen interacts mostly with a variety of gun activists, convincing droopy-looking militias of middle-aged white men that the surefire way to infiltrate Antifa is to pretend to love the HBO series Girls, or getting a Youth Shooters leader to bite a dildo on camera to survive a mock beheading. In the most memorable skit from the show’s premiere, Erran Morad approaches several gun activists (all but one of whom enthusiastically approve) about initiating a “Kinderguardians” program to train certain “gifted” toddlers and adolescents to use firearms in the event of a school shooting.
For each of these brilliant segments, there are unfortunately just as many- if not more- duds. While looking back over the episode summaries in preparing for this review, I was somewhat shocked to find that I had completely forgotten about nearly half of the brief 7-episode show’s skits. Most of the Gio Monaldo, Rick Sherman, OMGWhizzBoyOMG! scenes are easily forgettable. Even Erran Morad becomes a bore. After about the third or fourth episode, most of the character’s dupes become a blur, far too similar to tell apart and (barring the finale’s main skit with the character), don’t come close to the shock-value of his early appearances.
It doesn’t help that the show’s best moments- by far- come in the second episode. In the episode’s first skit, Cohen gets Georgia state representative Jason Spencer to spew Asian stereotypes, scream the N-word, and run backwards, ass-naked, shouting “‘merica!”. In a later scene (which is perhaps the highlight of the entire show), Erran Morad interviews Dick Cheney, asking him which war he started was his favorite and getting him to sign his waterboard kit. The episode ends with Dr. Nira proposing the construction of a mosque to an Arizonan community, inciting extreme anger and unabashedly racist remarks from the townspeople.
Despite its unavoidable inconsistency in quality, I found Who Is America? to be a genuinely enthralling series. Though no moments top those found in the second episode, I caught myself anticipating the show every week, equally eager and appalled to watch Cohen coax the ugliest tendencies out of Americans. Even so, everything that unfolds on screen is hardly shocking in 2018, and if ever there was an expiration date on Cohen’s style of exposé comedy it would be the Trump era. Truly, can we as the audience hold ourselves higher than the people Cohen makes a mockery of, if we are so deeply captivated by (and by extension complicit in) this repulsive behavior? The show’s title is its last ironic punchline: we don’t need to know who America is. We already found out in 2016.