Television

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? Can Be Cruel, but Some of His Targets Deserve It

Sacha Baron Cohen in Who Is America?
Sacha Baron Cohen in Who Is America?
Showtime

At the climax of the first episode of Who Is America?, the trickster Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series, Baron Cohen gets a number of politicians—let’s name names: former Sen. Trent Lott, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, and former Rep. Joe Walsh—to enthusiastically announce their support for “Kinderguardians,” a plan to arm “gifted” children as young as 3 in order to stop school shootings. It will teach “rudimentary understanding of mortars,” Walsh explains. “It turns first-graders into first grenaders!”

Baron Cohen’s new series, which premieres on Showtime Sunday, invents a number of characters to do collectively what his previous aliases, Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, did all by themselves: behave absurdly in the hopes of enticing interview subjects to behave grotesquely. As Col. Erran Morrad, an Israeli terrorism expert with a lantern jaw and a comically muscle-bound strut, he fools Republicans into thinking they are dealing with a like-minded gun nut. As the mustachioed, motorized wheelchair–using Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., he plays a dim conservative truther. As a “cisgender, white, heterosexual man, for which I apologize” with a ponytail, paunch, and NPR T-shirt, he goes on a listening tour of America. As these and various other characters, Baron Cohen speaks to Americans across the political spectrum, hoping that, in a fit of pique or a show of solidarity, they will reveal themselves. Like all of Baron Cohen’s work, Who Is America? has skirmishes with bro humor and punching down, but in sequences like the one mentioned above—in which conservatives state the abhorrent things they truly believe because they think it’s safe—it justifies all of its inconsistency.

In any Baron Cohen sketch, the absurdity of Baron Cohen’s character is always the backup joke. No matter what happens, you’ll have him to laugh at, even when the interview subjects don’t take the bait. And generally speaking, if the interviewee is not a smug idiot, they don’t—which is worth remembering as more and more smug idiots pre-emptively tweet about their encounters with Baron Cohen. In the premiere, for example, Bernie Sanders acquits himself perfectly well when interviewed by the exceedingly dim Ruddick Jr., who hates Obamacare because before it, he didn’t know he was sick, and is beside himself that Bernie can’t grok the plan—supported, you know, by many institutes—to put the 99 percent into the 1 percent. Coming off even better are the Trump voters who have Baron Cohen’s liberal caricature to dinner at their genteel home and politely react as he explains to them that, among other things, he has his daughter (named Malala; his son is named Harvey Milk, natch) free bleed on the American flag, part of a larger project funded by the Clinton Foundation. Oh, and also, his wife is having an affair with a porpoise. “Honey, don’t pass judgment,” the woman cautions as her husband prepares to react to the aquatic news.

In the most electric sketches, the most sparking and the most painful, the absurdity of Baron Cohen’s character is matched by his interviewee. Baron Cohen plays the clown, until, suddenly, the pie is all over evil’s face. When Baron Cohen has picked the right target, these interviews are like dark magic, using hilarious and cruel artifice to conjure the truth. Col. Morrad is particularly good at eliciting these sorts of moments, because he makes his right-wing interlocutors feel comfortable. He gets Philp Van Cleave, a gun-rights advocate, to blithely agree that the Kinderguardians program is a great idea, because 3-year-olds don’t have any sense of right and wrong, and therefore would make great soldiers. Van Cleave appears with Morrad in a cheery commercial aimed at kids for “puppy pistols,” handguns with little stuffed animals affixed to them. He sings to the tune of a children’s song to remind kids to aim at “the head, shoulders, not the toes, not the toes.”

Van Cleave may not mind his appearance on the show: He certainly believes everything he said, and might even have said it unprompted. Same goes for Larry Pratt, another gun-rights advocate, who laughs extremely hard when Morrad jokes, “It’s not rape if it’s your wife!” But Pratt promises to connect Morrad with some congressmen, who he says will be as supportive of the Kinderguardians idea as he is. It’s the revelation of the politician’s real beliefs, feelings about guns they would never willingly reveal on national television—3-year-olds should have them, and be trained to kill—that makes the episode.

The most questionable sketch in the premiere involves Baron Cohen playing an ex-con named Rick Sherman, who asks a gallerist to critique his art—simple portraits on cardboard made in feces and semen. At one point, he goes to the bathroom, and emerges with a portrait of the gallerist herself. She is exceedingly kind and totally dippy, and the sequence ends with her giving pubic hairs to Sherman for an art project he’s working on: a toothbrush with pubic-hair bristles—some of which, he tells her, he has already collected from Banksy and Damien Hirst. Baron Cohen obviously has a stomach for cruelty, and in sketches like this, there’s too much. It makes you feel bad for the mark, a harmless, nice, empathetic woman gamely going along.

I remember watching Borat in 2006, in which Baron Cohen played a bumbling, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist, and thinking that for all of the sequences that exposed bigotry—and there were certainly some of those: a rodeo host who wanted to hang gay people, frat boys who longed to own slaves—a surprising number showcased American politeness. Here these people were, being interviewed and harangued by a wild and crazy man, and more often than not, they went out of their way to make allowances for him, to stay calm, to help him even after he brought poop to the dinner table. In the sequence with the gallerist, there are traces of this—a willingness to play along, a tendency to go with the flow that seems nice.

But since Borat, this politeness has taken on a sour edge. For one thing, it no longer seems like politeness is totally benign. The Trump voters who don’t judge Baron Cohen’s free-bleeding parenting style have good manners. But what’s underneath that? For another, the “just go along with the guy with the film crew” ethos is how we got to this impossible moment: by accommodating a crazy man from television. For someone to say, as Joe Walsh did in defending his behavior, that he believed his Kinderguardians plug was to be aired in Israel—where people do things differently—and that he was hustled in front of a camera, is not like saying the dog ate my homework. It’s like saying I didn’t care about doing my homework, because The Apprentice was on.

Who Is America? exposes people, like Walsh, who believe horrifying things they’re more than willing to say in the right company. But it also exposes the toxicity of accommodating what is wrong, or foolish, or weird, or totally insane, because there’s a camera there, because it’s easier to do that than to be rude, than to figure out what’s really going on. When Sacha Baron Cohen is in charge, you go along at your own risk.