TV review: Who Is America? lets Sacha Baron Cohen humiliate people… again

In his new Showtime/CraveTV series, the provocateur captures the cynicism of modern media culture, but John Oliver and Samantha Bee do it regularly with more grace and a lot more responsibility

WHO IS AMERICA? (multiple directors), premieres Sunday (July 15) on CraveTV. Rating: NN

Here’s something I wrote in my 2009 review of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno movie:

“Baron Cohen’s comedy is almost entirely based on trapping people in a room with a merciless exaggeration of a stereotype – the clueless journalist, the uncouth foreigner, the predatory homosexual. If he doesn’t get the appropriate degree of discomfort from his subject, he turns up his own volume until he does.”

It’s 2018, and he’s doing it again… though thankfully without the gay panic.

Baron Cohen’s new television series Who Is America? (premiering in the U.S. on July 15 on Showtime, but available in Canada to CraveTV subscribers right now) finds the comedian once again assuming elaborate disguises to interview unsuspecting marks – some famous, some not – and make them humiliate themselves in front of a camera crew.

It’s the same thing he did in both the UK and American editions of Da Ali G Show, and in its spinoff movies, the brilliant Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazahkstan and the aforementioned Brüno. The only differences here are that the prosthetic makeup he wears is more elaborate, and the releases he has his guests sign are presumably even more ironclad.

But the shtick hasn’t changed in almost 20 years, and whether you enjoy Who Is America? will likely depend on how much you dig it – and perhaps how little you think about how he does what he does.

For this series, Baron Cohen has created a set of new characters. The first episode has four segments, each hosted by a different creation.

There’s Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., right-wing journalist of the Breitbart-like, who interviews Bernie Sanders about the senator’s favourite subjects, health care and redistribution of wealth.

Then there’s Ruddick’s antithesis, whose name I didn’t catch, an absurd caricature of an East Coast progressive who sits down to dinner with a Republican couple and offers a “First People’s chant” instead of saying grace.

There’s Rick Sherman, a British ex-convict who visits a gallery owner in Laguna Beach to show her his artwork – which, it turns out, are portraits painted with materials he’s sourced from his own body, a talent he discovered in prison.

And finally, there’s retired Israeli colonel Erran Morad, the self-styled “terrorist terminator” trying to launch a program to stop school shootings in America by arming children.

Morad, who gets the most screen time in the first episode, is also the most instantly discomfiting character: he’s an Uncanny Valley version of a G.I. Joe action figure, with a blocklike head and rigid joints. (A shot of him stomping through the streets of Georgetown looks like an outtake from a Terminator sequel.)

Morad is also a really uncomfortable rendition of pushy Israeli masculinity if he was a Charlie Hebdo drawing, we wouldn’t hesitate to call the character anti-Semitic. Yes, I know Baron Cohen is Jewish. So am I. It is what it is.

On some level, the increasing ridiculousness of Baron Cohen’s disguises is part of the gag: why don’t these people simply leave the room once they realize what’s up? But the other side of the bit is the subject’s inclination to indulge the interviewer as long as possible.

It’s to Sanders’s credit that his segment is as short as it is yeah, he makes a weird face when “Ruddick” goes full-on into nonsense about solving America’s economic inequality by “moving everybody into the top one per cent”, but he also tries to explain, slowly and calmly, why that can’t possibly work – and maybe two minutes later, the interview ends mid-sentence with a smash-cut.

The middle two segments go on at length, as Baron Cohen’s characters keep escalating their bits and the civilians across from them politely agree to every new suggestion. It’s the improv game of “yes, and…” At the dinner table, his genteel hosts roll with almost every absurdity uttered by their guest, while the gallery segment reaches its climax with a very specific humiliation that feels not just unnecessary but downright cruel – and one that would almost certainly not have happened had the interview subject been a man rather than a woman.

Yes, people will do stupid things in front of a camera. But it’s wrong, just the same. Do unsuspecting private citizens deserve the same excoriation as public figures who take money from gun lobbyists to minimize the deaths of schoolchildren?

That’s not a hypothetical, mind you that’s the focus of the final segment, which builds to a montage of American right-wing politicians – among them Trent Lott, Dana Rohrabacher, Joe Wilson and Joe Walsh – reading endorsements of Morad’s “Kinderguardians” project from a teleprompter.

Those men – and they’re all men – are acting cynically and exploitatively, and they know it. Fuck them, they’re garbage. So is Sarah Palin, who’s been disingenuously complaining about her upcoming interview with Baron Cohen in his Ruddick disguise rather than the wheelchair-bound “veteran” she describes, the character is a camo-clad civilian who uses a Rascal scooter for mobility.

The woman in the gallery, though? She’s just trying to be accommodating, and in doing so is coerced into something she will never, ever live down. I found myself wondering if she was an actor, in on the joke – and then actively hoping she was.

Yes, Who Is America? is performing an essential service by capturing the cynicism of modern media culture. But John Oliver and Samantha Bee perform the same service with a little more grace and a lot more responsibility, since they’re accountable for what they do and they represent themselves as themselves.

Baron Cohen uses his characters as a licence to run amok through people’s lives, always getting the last word in the editing bay while keeping himself above it all by only engaging with his work in character. I wish this new show gave me the sense that he’s learned anything about what he does. Anything at all.

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