'Who Is America?': TV Review
Sacha Baron Cohen's new Showtime comedy is occasionally funny, but it's hard to be outrageous in a world where ideologies that used to be concealed are now proudly public.
Back in 2000, when Da Ali G Show premiered, people still had a modicum of shame.
In Michaelangelo terms: If the grotesques targeted by Sacha Baron Cohen in his genre-bending smash were perfect statues of ugliness, "shame" was the extraneous rock that covered them in their public personae, the temporary impediment Cohen had to carve away in his mission to reveal human nature.
It's 2018 and shame is dead. The proudly deplorable parade through the street in their hateful finery and tweet their slurs and ignorance with pride, sometimes with anuran avatars and coy usernames, but just as often associated with their own faces and names. Your typical neo-Nazi need not hide as a block of marble when he can walk proudly in his native form.
(If you're coming to this review from the right, simply substitute pussy hats and proud adherence to socialism in that paragraph.)
Shame was the secret ingredient in Da Ali G Show, the obstacle that had to be circumvented to make us believe that the effort Cohen put into devising characters, picking his targets and insinuating himself into their lives on-camera was worth the trouble.
Shame is the missing ingredient in Cohen's Who Is America? and, unfortunately, it's not an ingredient that proves merely incidental. It's the difference between shocking and not shocking, between hilarious and simply fleetingly funny.
Cohen's new comedy, set to premiere on Sunday on Showtime and already available online on all of Showtime's digital platforms, arrives shrouded in the oddest sort of secrecy insofar as the pay cabler only acknowledged the existence of the show last week and has been able to mostly sit back and let figures like Roy Moore and Sarah Palin handle publicity themselves. Whereas frustrated victims on Da Ali G show were frequently embarrassed by the things they had been captured saying and doing on camera, the Moores and Palins of the world are more offended by the mere act of the duping. If you're Roy Moore or Sarah Palin, the malicious acts of a misleading British comedian are far worse than anything that might have been revealed or exposed about themselves, since whatever fans those two have, they already know what they stand for. Ditto whatever adversaries they have.
The disappointing reality of Who Is America? is that Cohen hasn't really gotten anybody to espouse any ideology that they wouldn't and haven't advocated proudly without the subterfuge. We live in a world in which barriers between public brand and private ideology have essentially been erased. This show reveals Cohen, working under gallons of latex that must somehow play more realistically in person than onscreen, as a comic magician taking the stage after the prior prestidigitator revealed how all the tricks were done. The degree to which you haven't been paying any attention to the world will mirror the degree to which you're amazed and probably amused by what Cohen has perpetrated, just as the degree to which the subjects on-camera are willfully myopic mirrors the extent to which they were duped.
The gimmick of Who Is America? fits within the parameters of Cohen's established work. Over the two episodes I've seen — the second of which I'm barely allowed to acknowledge I've seen — he plays five or six characters. Those characters include, but are not limited to, an InfoWars-esque conspiracy theorist with a Texas accent and a mobility scooter, a balding NPR lover prone to apologizing for his cis-gender white male privilege and a former Mossad agent with a thick "Israeli" accent and very permissive feelings about gun control. Though I'm plenty skeptical about how oblivious you'd have to be in order to be proximate to these characters and not notice their rubbery artificiality, I'm not skeptical of Cohen's gifts as a sketch comic. Each of the characters arrives accompanied by an initial wave of amusement and several are good for a couple chuckles. Not one of the characters gets better with additional screen time and not one of the characters gets funnier based on spontaneous interaction with Cohen's targets. I laughed several times at Who Is America? and each of my laughs was based on something carefully scripted either that Cohen did or that he got a subject to read.
Showtime would like as few details about the series revealed as possible and to keep them restricted to the first episode, that starts with the right-wing conspiracy theorist talking to Bernie Sanders. The white-haired paragon of the far left sets what will be a template for Cohen's early approach, which is intent on getting liberals to fight with him until they get frustrated enough to give up and conservatives to eagerly join him and follow him over a cliff. I guess that approach also should also hint at the answer to the show's titular query.
Though Sanders is the biggest name in the first episode, his segment stops well before either he or Cohen do anything interesting. The premiere's showcase segment finds the Mossad character rounding up gun rights activists for an advertising campaign and it's absolutely outrageous, or at least it's absolutely outrageous if you've never seen Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League or radio/Twitter troll (and former congressman) Joe Walsh in the news previously. If those gentlemen or Dana Rohrabacher or Larry Pratt or Matt Gaetz have been at all on your radar, you'll know why all of the outrage directed at the show thus far as been about how Cohen got them to be on camera at all and not what he got them to say or do.
There's at least one probable exception in the second episode, but I can't tell you who he/she is or what they do other than to say that they'll only be embarrassed by what they do and not any of the words out of their mouth — words that are indistinguishable from on-the-record statements they make happily.
I also can't tell you about the closing segment of the second episode, why it was so woefully unfunny and how it's such a perfect illustration of why Cohen's approach only works when he's punching up and becomes infuriatingly bullying when he's punching down.
So, who is America?
America is irreparably polarized and diminished, prone in certain corners (on both sides of the aisle) to being vapid and easily misled. It's a truth nobody was really hiding or denying. I'm confused by the identity of people who would find these observations perceptive or revelatory, and yet I'm equally confident that there are viewers who will be blown away by Sacha Baron Cohen's latest.
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)