Who Is America?, the Sacha Baron Cohen series Showtime called “the most dangerous TV show ever,” anchored its season finale with a terrorist attack. A fictional one, sure, but the man involved, a man who one might assume knew he was being filmed, pressed a button that he was told would result in the death of a left-wing protestor. Afterwards, that man, Glenn, said he felt “a little queasy,” but later noted that “it’s been a wonderful experience.”
That...definitely felt dangerous.
Who Is America?, however, doesn’t really. At least not in totality.
Maybe it was an issue of expectation. As I previously noted, Showtime shot itself in the foot by promising “the most dangerous TV show ever,” a distinction that not even Baron Cohen—a fearless, risk-taking comedian by any measure—could live up to in this era of hyperbole and peripatetic goalposts. That mode of marketing carelessly toyed into the hysteria of both left-wing and right-wing viewers and, for that very reason, drew a great deal of reactionary criticism, whether it be via Baron Cohen’s low-brow provocation or the spotlight he was shining, no matter how harshly, on hateful right-wing behaviors.
A.V. Club alum Todd VanDerWerff wrote a great essay on his issues with the show over at Vox, and—though I despise the piece’s reductive, click-baiting headline and subhead—he beautifully articulates several of the show’s fundamental weaknesses. There’s the sloppy structure, which often placed segments alongside each other without regard to thematic consistency. And there’s the hazy point of view: What, exactly, is Baron Cohen trying to say here? Well, several of his characters—Gio Monaldo and Rick Sherman, specifically—are saying many of the same things Ali G, Borat, and Brüno were, which is that celebrity culture and artistic scenes are often vapid, soulless, and thirsty. Aside from a few hiccups, they worked great; they simultaneously pushed the limits of politeness and drew out the narcissism of celebrity in ways that were satisfying, if not entirely novel.
But things are different now. We have a lunatic in the Oval Office, Nazis are scurrying from their holes, and everyone fucking hates each other. So, when peeled back and set against the breadth of culture, showing the vapidity of Corinne from The Bachelor lacks bite. Sure, I get that. I still think it’s hilarious, but I get it. Who Is America? literally began its marketing campaign with the promise that Baron Cohen would graduate from Trump University—a promise that, as of now at least, remains unfulfilled (the comedian, it appears, has gone back and forth about what content he wants released)—so it makes sense that viewers—critics, especially—would expect something a bit bloodier and more resonant than the behavioral studies of Borat. Unfortunately, three of the four politically aggressive characters—right-wing truther Billy Wayne Ruddick, ultra-sensitive liberal Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, and YouTuber OMGWhizzBoyOMG—were, well, kind of duds. Nira had some memorable moments, sure—the rap battle remains a highlight—but, throughout their numerous appearances, Ruddick and WhizzBoy never transcend their one-note approaches. In both instances, Baron Cohen delivers wonderful performances of paper-thin characters.
WhizzBoy, in the end, was more of an aesthetic presence than a tangible one, with each joke essentially boiling down to the uncanny sight of old, racist political figures on a child-focused, ultra-modern YouTube show. Ruddick, meanwhile, never felt dangerous because the comedian clearly wasn’t trying to expose his Democratic targets. Instead, he was content to lampoon how bullish and logistically pretzeled the Infowars sect is, the likes of which you can just as easily get by watching a Mike Cernovich livestream (please don’t do that, though—watch this instead). With both of them, he settled for the easy joke when the marketing and setup had prepared us for more.
As the title asserts, Who Is America? is meant to comment on the breadth of American culture, but what’s clear in retrospect is that Baron Cohen only had something original to say about specific aspects of it. Celebrity, art, politeness—these are his safe spaces, and those bits work like gangbusters. But it’s in Israeli defense expert Erran Morad that Baron Cohen found his modern-day muse, as well as a topic that he was only able to graze with Borat and Brüno. That topic is hate, and the ease with which it can be manipulated and exploited.
That’s exactly what Morad was so good at. By capitalizing on his marks’ racial biases and thirst for blood, he was able to transform so many “alpha males” into the very things they despised while simultaneously exposing the threats they pose. We saw it with disgraced Georgia state representative Jason Spencer; we saw it with the MAGA quinceañera; and we saw it on tonight’s episode, in which a man commits what he believes to be the murder of someone who’s done nothing to him besides disagree politically.
Let’s start at the beginning: Morad invites three far-right MAGA types—the kind who describe the goal of #MeToo as “kill all the men”—into his gym, where he teaches them how to pose as a liberal by knowing quinoa cooking times (nine minutes), the tire pressure of a Nissan Leaf (35 to 36 PSI), and which episode of HBO’s Girls is the best (season 2, episode 3, with which I actually don’t disagree). Sure, those are easy jokes, but, as has been the case with all of Morad’s bits—especially Kinder Guardians—it’s all about the escalation. After teaching the men how to give each other compliments like a liberal—“I love those cheeks,” says Cody to Glenn—and how to act like a lesbian—“I hate fucking penises,” Cody improvises—Morad forces them to defile a Trump mannequin, first with insults and then, out of nowhere, multiple dildos.
I still can’t believe this happened.
Morad ends up taking Glenn to the Women’s March in San Francisco, where the pair dress up as lesbian doctors (replete with pussy hats) and plant “tracking devices” with a built-in “explosive” on unsuspecting members of “Antifa.” Morad soon pulls out an iPad with a detonate button, and, after informing Glenn that the detonation will kill the person wearing the explosive, Glenn still chooses to hit the button. “I’ve never participated in someone’s death,” Glenn says, clearly shaken. Later, the two watch Girls in Glenn’s hotel room as Morad laments how easy it is to “radicalize” liberals, to which Glenn responds he’d “rather be the butcher than the sheep.”
This is terrifying.
But is it comedy? That depends on what you find funny, I guess. That Baron Cohen is able to balance moments like this (or, say, the vulgar racism of the Kingman focus group) alongside blue jokes about pubic hair and anally-aged veal is arguably one of its biggest strengths, but it’s also what creates the kind of tonal and thematic imbalance that’s alienated so many. In these politically charged times, there’s a particular sense of expectation and criticism that accompanies attempts to make art out of injustice. The bar is undoubtedly high. And though Who Is America?, as a whole, didn’t quite congeal into something capable of capturing the zeitgeist, particular characters and stunts certainly did.
I know for a fact that I won’t ever forget the length to which my jaw dropped when I saw Jason Spencer threatening to turn Morad gay with his bare ass; or a food critic look into a camera to tell the parents of a Chinese dissident how delicious his flesh was; or a handful of lawmakers advocate for the arming of “gifted” pre-schoolers.
For those moments, I can forgive a lame interview with Barney Frank.
- Speaking of former Massachusetts state representative Barney Frank, he went toe-to-toe with Ruddick in this episode in an underwhelming interview most notable for Ruddick’s reveal of the “real” “grab ‘em by the pussy conversation,” which, in his version, is about Billy Bush buying a cat to solve his mouse problem. I admit I laughed at “by the pussy” being reinterpreted as “buy the pussy.”
- Oh, also, this happened:
- I can’t believe he got fucking O.J. Simpson. This whole bit popped up after the credits drop, so do go back if you missed it. There’s not a ton to it, but I was just about screaming when Gio’s girlfriend revealed she knew Simpson not as a football player or actor, but only as the guy who got away with murdering his wife. Clearly, Baron Cohen was hoping to score a Jinx-like reveal by badgering Simpson enough that he’d show his hand on the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman (beyond If I Did It, of course), but instead he just gets plenty of casual, creepy laughs and lots of leering. I am dying to know the context of this meeting.
- Who Is America? characters, from best to worst: Erran Morad > Rick Sherman > Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello > Gio Monaldo > OMGWhizzBoyOMG > Billy Wayne Ruddick
- Pizzagate feels like something of a missed opportunity, yeah? It’s incredible it took this long for Baron Cohen to incorporate, and disappointing he didn’t find a more fertile way to work it in. The whole thing is primed for this kind of comedy.
- Another compliment among the boys I loved: “You have the best chest and shoulders I’ve ever seen.”
- Glenn was very excited to jam a dildo into the chest of that Trump mannequin. “Titty fuck, you motherfucker!” Jesus.
- “That’s genocide,” Glenn says of Morad’s tale of liberals putting a chemical in diapers that turns babies transgender.
- Thanks so much for reading along this season. This has been a fun, but extremely difficult show to write about, what with Showtime’s lack of pre-air screeners and just about everything here touching on some kind of hot-button issue. Your discourse has been appreciated.
- “Is there any good pussy tail going on down there?”