Who Is America? review: Sacha Baron Cohen's new satire does not 'make benefit' his once glorious career
Retaining the inflammatory nature of his previous work, Sacha Baron Cohen updates his tried-and-tested formula to include 2018 America's ideological polarities in Who Is America?
Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't believe in simplistic binaries. Having set ablaze the borders between reality and fiction, real news and fake news, surface and substance, and sincere and satire more than a decade ago, the shockmeister of comedy returns with a new rabble-rousing TV series, Who Is America?
And the rabble was roused even before the series premiered on Sunday. Unwitting Republican lawmakers — from wannabe president Sarah Palin to wannabe senator Roy Moore to Congressman Joe Wilson — decried Cohen's show for duping them into appearing on it under false pretenses. But all the backlash really did was give Showtime's new series some free publicity before its launch.
Those familiar with Cohen's confrontational antics from his earlier series (Da Ali G Show) or his films (Borat, Bruno, The Dictator) will find his new status-quo disrupting series has a similar format. He uses a variety of disguises — enhanced by prosthetic make-up and heavy accents — to sandbag unsuspecting high-profile personalities into making lamentable statements by asking some rude but mostly relevant questions.
On Da Ali G Show, he invited you to laugh at things you know you shouldn’t — be it racism, sexism, anti-Semitism or homophobia. He said the kind of things that would never be uttered in polite, civilised society. His subversive approach was brazen but his impolite, uncivil segments helped highlight the various forms of prejudicial discrimination. His awkward interactions with politicians, celebrities or even common-folk would often reveal some of their deeply hidden biases.
Retaining the inflammatory nature of his previous work, Cohen updates his tried-and-tested formula to include 2018 America's ideological polarities in his new show. However, replacing the daft white boy gangsta rapper Ali G, the blithely bigoted Kazakh correspondent Borat Sagdiyev and the over-the-top gay Austrian fashionista Brüno Gehard are four new personas — right-wing conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D.; ponytailed, white liberal snowflake Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello; British ex-con turned poop-artist Rick Sherman; and Israeli counter-terrorism expert Colonel Erran Morad.
The first episode of the show is neatly divided into a series of interview segments dedicated to each of Cohen's new personas. The moronic Billy kicks things off with a discussion about Obamacare with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. The electric wheechair-bound "Truther" turns what could have been a meaningful debate into an arithmetically implausible proposal to solve income inequality in America. It is painful to watch poor Sanders trying to reason with Billy as he explains his nonsensical scheme to include all of America's 99% within the top 1%. Sanders finally confesses, “Billy, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” ultimately concluding the first of three tedious interviews.
The second segment finds the NPR-loving uber-liberal Nira dine at the home of a Trump-voting couple. He tells them in an elaborate, crude exchange how he encourages his daughter Malala to "free-bleed" on an American flag while menstruating to teach and remind her of the number of people who have died to build their great country. This then segues into another discomforting account of how his wife took a dolphin lover and how her infidelity has made him consider moving to a landlocked state.
It only gets worse in the third segment as Cohen's third character, the recently released inmate Rick Sherman, reveals his predilection for faeces and bodily fuids in his artwork. While Ruben Östlund tackled the pretentiousness of the contemporary art world with biting satire in The Square, Cohen chooses to do it with cringe-inducing moments that include a California gallery owner donating her pubic hair to add to Rick's paint brush.
The episode's only compelling segment comes in its least funny but most intriguing interview featuring the trigger-happy Erran Morad. Disguised as an Israeli security expert, Cohen convinces several gun rights lobbyists and prominent Republican politicians to endorse his ‘Kinder-Guardians’ initiative which calls for the arming of children as young as three years old.
Philip Van Cleave, the camera-hungry head of Virginia Citizens Defense League who was made infamous by John Oliver in a 2013 segment on The Daily Show, sings a reworked version of the children's song, "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" to advertise fire arms — with cute names like "Puppy Pistols" and "Gunny Rabbits" — to kids. "Aim at the head, shoulders, not the toes, not the toes," he sings gleefully.
The shocking ignorance of these gun rights advocates is further revealed when they read off orchestrated, nonsensical cue cards. "The science behind this program is proven. Children under five also have elevated levels of a pheromone Blink-182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora. This allows nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neural pathway, to the Wiz Khalifa, 40% faster saving time and saving lives," reads Gun Owners of America director Larry Pratt, making an utter fool of himself.
Watching these high-profile figures back a guns-for-kids program that introduces kids to "pistols, rifles, semi-automatics and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars” or Pratt laugh about marital rape is certainly more shocking and cringe-worthy than Cohen's other subversive antics in the episode.
In a highly polarised America, where fake news has become a snarl word for people to reject – consciously or subconsciously – any information that undermines their personal beliefs, Who Is America? asks an important existential question about the country's identity and its us vs them mentality. Cohen mortifies those across the left-right political spectrum but as you'd expect, only his lampooning of the right seems competent.
However, from a political satire standpoint, provocative shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee have more important things to say and are a more radical comedic reaction to our current socio-political climate.
A problem with Cohen's off-the-wall personas in Who Is America? is that the issues they're supposed to highlight may often get lost in these characters' excesses. His brand of shock comedy has certainly lost its efficacy since Da Ali G Show and Borat. This explains why his subsequent films like Bruno and The Dictator were poorly received and called out for being in bad taste.
Similarly, you will either love or hate Who Is America? depending on your tolerance for unbelievably awkward human interaction. In the end, it does come down to simplistic binaries.
Who Is America? is currently streaming on Hotstar.
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