A cruel joke: ‘Who is America?” asks a question we may not want answered

By JIM SABATASO
Correspondent

Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career of putting one over on people. On “Da Ali G Show” (2000-2004), the British comedian and master of disguise landed interviews with unwitting celebrities, politicians and other public figures. The results were almost always squirm-inducing.

With a little prodding, Baron Cohen gets his subjects to embarrass themselves spectacularly, exposing their ignorance and prejudices along the way. He never misrepresents people or makes them say anything they didn’t already believe. Yes, he may gain access under false pretenses, but that doesn’t change or diminish the result. These people are willingly saying these awful things; he’s just teeing them up.

Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series, “Who is America?” sees him updating his schtick for 2018 with a new cast of characters befitting our current cultural moment. The series is an ostensible exploration of the ugly spaces that exist within the great ideological chasm that has divided our nation. While it misses the mark more often than not, Baron Cohen is nonetheless an exceptional improviser who fully inhabits the characters he plays. Even at the show’s worst, his talent still shines through.

Baron Cohen’s ability to gain access to powerful people is astonishing, albeit unsurprising. He knows how easy it is to exploit the pride and vanity of public figures — give them a camera and an audience and they’ll trip over themselves to hit their mark. In doing so, he reveals how utterly shameless some of these people are. This season he manages to get an audience with Sarah Palin, Bernie Sanders, Dick Cheney and more.

The series’ most noteworthy (and viral) segment has been “Kinderguardians,” which features Baron Cohen posing as Col. Erran Morad, an ex-Mossad officer and anti-terrorism expert. In it, he successfully dupes a number of conservative politicians and gun-rights lobbyists to endorse a program that would arm schoolchildren as young as three with firearms. To see elected officials support such an absurd, wrongheaded and vile premise is a stomach-turning confirmation that these people value their agenda more than human life.

The Morad character also scores big elsewhere, when he teaches anti-terrorism defense techniques to Georgia State legislator Jason Spencer. Spencer enthusiastically follows Morad’s ridiculous instructions to deter terrorists by screaming the N-word and exposing his buttocks. It’s both painful and thoroughly satisfying to watch Spencer humiliate himself as he gives in to his xenophobia and hops around the room with his pants around his ankles chanting, “U.S.A.!” (Spencer has since resigned from office.)

Other characters are less impressive. Much of the show outside the Morad segments falls flat or pushes past humorous into a nasty or mean-spirited territory. And while it’s fun to see Baron Cohen mess with powerful people, it’s less so when he does it to regular folks.

A segment featuring the character Rick Sherman, an ex-con who makes art out of his own bodily fluids, plays out as cruel and juvenile. In it, Sherman preys on the sympathies of a kind, if not particularly astute, gallery owner, humiliating her in the process.

Similarly, Baron Cohen’s character Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello is a radical parody of out-of-touch progressives who are built to trigger conservatives, but is so over-the-top he strains credulity.

In one segment, he sits down to dinner with a Trump 2016 delegate and her husband in an attempt to confront the genial couple with a liberal yahoo stereotype. However, it’s unclear who Baron Cohen is trolling here. The couple politely withholds judgment despite Nira’s attempts to shock them. Ultimately, the piece collapses under the weight of the couple’s unflinching southern hospitality.

Dr. Nira is more effective in a later segment that sees him presenting a plan to build a mosque in small-town Arizona. The proposal draws fierce opposition from a roomful of residents who express their opinions in blunt terms.

“I’m racist against Muslims,” one man says matter-of-factly.

Another resident takes it a step further, declaring he barely tolerates the town’s black population as it is.

While part of me thinks it’s cheap comedy to embarrass average Joes and Janes on TV — I’ve never been a fan of Jimmy Kimmel or Jay Leno’s man-on-the-street bits that mocked people’s ignorance — I was unbothered by how successful Baron Cohen was at making this group of people look bad. Honestly, I found it delightful. I’m firmly not in the “very fine people on both sides” camp, and I believe racist behavior and attitudes should be named and shamed wherever they manifest.

Despite conservatives being the target of much of Baron Cohen’s antics, he does attempt to have a go at liberals, too. His Billy Wayne Ruddick, Jr., character is a right-wing conspiracy nut intended to troll libs as a sort of mirror-image Dr. Nira. In separate segments, Ruddick sits down with Sanders and Ted Koppel, but neither piece amounts to much since both subjects quickly sniff out a scam.

Reflecting on his appearance, Koppel raised concerns that fake documentarians are playing a dangerous game right now. In an environment of fake news, Baron Cohen’s comedy is potentially harmful.

“I think there’s enough skepticism to go around about people who actually are reporters, who actually are documentarians,” he said. “And to undermine whatever tiny little bit of confidence might be left by pulling a stunt like this … maybe it will make for a good comedy show. I don’t know. But I don’t think it helps the overall atmosphere.”

Koppel makes a fair point that gets at the bigger question of whether Baron Cohen’s comedy is the right fit for this particular cultural moment. Not only does it potentially undermine confidence, it also feels somewhat stale in an environment where so little shocks us anymore. Hearing a politician say something ridiculous, racist or abhorrent isn’t news anymore; that’s just a typical Monday. Hell, our president does it on Twitter every day.

There is also a whiff of nihilism running through “Who is America” which, despite its moments of true schadenfreude satisfaction, leaves you feeling more despair than catharsis. In asking us who we are, the show uncovers an ugliness we all must acknowledge and reckon with. But, at the end of the day, Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedian; healing the divide isn’t his job or responsibility. It’s up to the rest of us to do that difficult work if we are to ever truly make progress as a unified nation.

CHECK IT OUT
New episodes of “Who is America” air Sundays at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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