Screenshot: Showtime

Who Is America?, the new Sacha Baron Cohen series that Showtime’s touted as “the most dangerous TV show ever,” opens with video clips that portray a starry-eyed, sepia-toned vision of America before accelerating into a barrage of recent news footage: President Donald Trump mocking a disabled person; adult film performer and thorn in Trump’s side Stormy Daniels; white supremacists marching on Charlottesville; Hillary Clinton posing with noted sexual predator Harvey Weinstein; and so on. The implication is not that America is worse off now than it was during those years–Ronald Reagan features heavily in the former clips, after all–but that everything these days is louder, dumber, and more visible. The endless access of social media and the 24-hour news cycle have turned politics into a spectator sport, one we watch in the same way we do a soap opera. It’s numbing; what would’ve made us gasp 10 years ago is now just another twist in a spiraling narrative.

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Now, you already know that Baron Cohen’s series has him chasing that spiral, as scum like Roy Moore and Sarah Palin have already given the show oodles of free press with their tales of being duped by the comedian. You won’t see either of them in the first episode, but you will see presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, gun lobbyist Larry Pratt, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson, and former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh (meaning he was fooled by the series twice). Like Baron Cohen’s previous comedy series, HBO’s Da Ali G Show, the show splits episodes into segments highlighting the comedian’s personas, who bounce between interviews, meetings, and stunts. As on Ali G, Baron Cohen has no presence outside of his characters, and there is no narrator or omniscient voice guiding the action. The segments are framed as mini-shows within the larger one, with each existing independently.

But let’s take a moment to talk about how Who Is America? does differ from its predecessor, because there’s a marked gap between the two that’s informed by our current reality. First off, it’s a surprise at all that Baron Cohen is returning to the kind of guerilla comedy on which he made his name. Two of his previous characters–Borat and Brüno–received solo films that upped the comedian’s brand of satire to unbelievable levels, propelling him to levels of stardom that all but nixed his hopes of continuing in the realm of undercover comedy. The characters, after all, were the whole point; Baron Cohen was able to excavate and exploit racial, sexual, and generational biases in his subjects by confronting them with interview partners that couldn’t be sated with mere politeness. But, for all of their flamboyance, there was also a subtlety to Ali G, Borat, and Brüno. They were offensive, but also innocent, their mortifying behaviors informed by matters of upbringing and cultural environment.

Screenshot: Showtime

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What’s so markedly different about Who Is America? is that, aside from ex-con Rick Sherman (who we’ll discuss in a bit), Baron Cohen’s new characters are anything but innocent. They’re biased, aggressive, and equipped with a fierce, partisan agenda. Billy Wayne Ruddick is a crude, far-right conspiracy theorist with a nutty website (Truthbrary.com, which is real); far-left liberal Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello is, in the character’s own words, “a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologize”; and Erran Morad is a beefy gun nut angling to get assault weapons into the hands of students. The extreme nature of the characters speaks to our times—since our country no longer masks its biases, Baron Cohen’s job isn’t to expose them so much as frame them in contexts that highlight their absurdity.

That said, they’re still provocateurs in the same style as Borat and Brüno, serving not as satirical figures in themselves, but as the literal embodiment of what so many Americans think of those on the opposite side of their divide. Cain-N’Degeocello’s segment, in which he sits down for dinner with a pair of Trump delegates, is particularly revealing in this regard, as the couple eats up his story of his wife cheating on him with a literal dolphin. These are the same people, let us remember, who oppose gay marriage because they believe liberals will want to start marrying animals next. The weariness of Sanders, meanwhile, is on full display as he chats with Ruddick, with the politician seeming sadly resigned to the coarse, misinformed discourse on Obamacare and the 1% that his partner offers. Baron Cohen is playing every side’s worst nightmare.

And perhaps that’s why his Rick Sherman character feels so out of place in this episode. An ex-con with a desire to become an artist, Sherman meets with a chic art consultant, who politely (and sometimes effusively) engages with paintings he made on cardboard with his own shit and semen. It’s blunt, extremely blue stuff, and Baron Cohen already nailed its satire of the art world’s vapid, grasping embrace of the lazily provocative with his work as Brüno. That said, the segment ends with the woman willingly offering Sherman strands of her pubic hair, the likes of which he’s collecting on a stick that he carries around, so we’ll call it redeemed.

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Screenshot: Showtime

It pales, however, to the episode’s final segment, which, in addition to consuming half the episode, utterly dwarfs everything that came before it. That’s surprising, too, because when you first see Baron Cohen as Erran Morad it’s hard to believe anyone would take him seriously. His prosthetics are cartoonish, he talks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he’s literally advocating that 3-year olds be taught how to fire assault rifles. But that’s the thing: The extremity works and, as such, this is the segment that can help you understand why Showtime would call Who Is America? the “most dangerous TV show ever.”

The gist is this: Morad wants to launch a program called Kinderguardians, in which he introduces children between the ages of 3 and 16 to “pistols, rifles, semi-automatics, and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars.” First, he meets with Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League, who loves the idea so much he joins Morad for a colorful, kid-friendly video with characters like “Puppy Pistol” and “Gunny Rabbit.” Baron Cohen could’ve stopped there, but he then takes the idea (and the video) to a terrifying gun lobbyist, Larry Pratt, who agrees wholeheartedly with Morad when he says “the great thing about toddlers is that they don’t have any fear of guns.” That leads to chats with a number of the aforementioned congressman, who film a PSA-style video touting the program’s potential. Lott speaks of the “talented children” and “highly trained pre-schoolers” who could stop a school shooter, while the others happily declare that “the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good kid with a gun.”

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Screenshot: Showtime

This is Who Is America? at its best. Here, Baron Cohen isn’t just exposing the problematic beliefs of the literal people who run this country, but working them into a professional framework that shows just how quickly and easily they’ll glom onto a position that furthers their agenda. A key part of Baron Cohen’s trick here is in having Morad cite “studies” that prove fourth graders “see in slow motion” and other absurdities. No one here seems to question them whatsoever, and Pratt even reads out loud for the camera some of the study’s “findings,” which include nonsensical references to Cardi B, Rita Ora, and Blink-182, none of whom seem to ring a bell with him. The level of irresponsibility is absolutely staggering, which, unlike Da Ali G Show, gives Who Is America? some genuine stakes.

If only it were funnier. There’s plenty of laughs in the episode, but Baron Cohen has a habit of pursuing particular rabbit holes for far too long. A segment in which Ruddick explains to Sanders how to merge the 99% with the 1%, for example, stretches on to the point of tedium. And, despite its hilarious ending, the Sherman segment never quite transcends the tired concept of a man painting with his own shit. Baron Cohen’s always been drawn to blue, blush-inducing comedy, and it almost always emerges as a sketch’s weakest link.

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Not weak, however, is Baron Cohen the performer, who’s clearly put some real time into these characters. His various accents, American and otherwise, are shockingly confident, and the precise, nimble mannerisms of characters like Cain-N’Degeocello and Sherman give the characters a strange kind of vulnerability. As such, it’s easy to look past the overwrought prosthetics, which are an unfortunate byproduct of the comedian’s fame.

Getting hung up on the prosthetics is pointless, however, as it’s become abundantly clear that, thick and grotesque as they are, they did the trick. The accounts of duped public figures–Matt Gaetz, Joe Arpaio, Austin Rhodes–keep rolling in, and there’s bound to be some faces on the series who didn’t try to get in front of it ahead of the premiere.

The thing is, they might want to. If this first episode is any indication, Who Is America? is here to frame the powerful in ways we haven’t yet seen. In this shameless era of Trump, that’s a feat unto itself.

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Stray observations

  • It’s fascinating to watch a show like this in the wake of Nathan For You, which was so clearly inspired by Ali G. Nathan Fielder’s approach, though, is so much more subtle, and while that works in peeling back the layers of humanity, one wonders if it would be as effective in the realm of politics.
  • “I’ve been cycling through our fractured nation, listening respectfully and without prejudice to Republicans with the hope of changing their racist and childish views,” says Cain-N’Degeocello in some on point liberal satire.
  • Cain-N’Degeocello’s children’s names are Harvey Milk and Malala.
  • Who can watch Van Cleave commit so fully to that “Not the Toes” song and not think he is a genuine psycho? That is some serial killer shit right there.
  • Ruddick: “I was forced to see a doctor and suddenly I had three diseases.”
  • Morad: “Let’s see if we can stop these anti-gun people from getting everybody killed.”
  • “A first grader can become a first grenadier.” Stay classy, Joe Walsh.

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