Shows that involve tricking their guests usually like to boss their viewers around too. They tell you how to respond through editing or sound effects or voice-over. At one extreme, shows like Candid Camera encouraged viewers to laugh at people caught in staged scenarios that usually end with a “You’re on Candid Camera!” reveal. At the other, James O’Keefe’s Planned Parenthood “sting” videos elicit outrage by providing inflammatory commentary that “connects the dots” for you. But Sacha Baron Cohen’s controversial new Showtime series, Who Is America?, doesn’t quite fall in either camp. This is arguably its weakness: The show offers an assortment of scenes so startling in their development—and so baroquely difficult to explain—that the viewer is left not just speechless but unsure how to respond. When a luxury-yacht salesman—Baron Cohen’s target—blithely greenlights a millionaire’s project for a yacht that could traffic humans and kill refugees, the segment ends and the show moves onto a fresh premise before you’ve had a chance to process your horror. That ambiguous quality has cost the show slightly. It’s not clear whether it’s comedy, or gotcha journalism, or some deeply fraught mix. Who Is America? isn’t quite bossy enough.
In other words, a perfectly valid criticism of the show is that it’s just too bizarre for its revelations to matter. But the show has achieved some real-world consequences, even if we’re not sure what precisely caused them. Georgia state Rep. Jason Spencer, the author of a failed bill that would have banned Muslim women from wearing veils, had to resign after appearing on camera “impersonating” a Chinese tourist (using phrases like sushi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Red Dragon) in order to up-skirt a woman in a burqa to determine whether she’s a terrorist. He also bared his rear end while threatening to infect a hypothetical ISIS terrorist with homosexuality and screamed a racial epithet at the top of his lungs. No one knows which part of this sorry spectacle forced his resignation; most likely it was the horrifying aggregate. But the point is that Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy has indeed ended one political career. That means it deserves some serious attention.
Many of the figures he’s targeted have tried to argue that Baron Cohen “duped” them (this was Spencer’s argument) or that they were indulging him out of a very American sense of courtesy. If this second defense feels like it might succeed, that’s because it’s deeply plausible. Plenty of scenarios in Cohen’s oeuvre fit this exact description: Target is confronted with a zany obnoxious character, flails, and tries to make an anxious situation better without being rude. If the result is a kind of well-meaning tolerance of the intolerable—like Borat getting a crowd of Americans to sing “Throw the Jew Down the Well” along with him—well, maybe they were just trying to make a foreigner feel at home. Cohen, after all, has long been criticized for preying on people’s manners and acting like he’s revealed their true beliefs. Christopher Hitchens argued in these pages over a decade ago that Cohen’s earlier character, Borat, revealed little save that “Americans are almost pedantic in their hospitality and politesse.” Critiques of Who Is America? follow on similar lines: that the show is constrained by its method, and ultimately what’s revealed isn’t inherent depravity but rather, as Emily VanDerWerff wrote in Vox, that “most of us are too polite to call people on their bullshit.”
But the unusual thing about Who Is America? is that it actually runs on two extremely different strands of cringe comedy, and extorted courtesy is only one of them. Yes, Baron Cohen plays a number of characters whose basic schtick is being so stupid and insufferable that you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for them. A great example is when a Republican couple hosts Cohen as a pussy-hat-wearing liberal named Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello. The couple comes off quite well: They’re perfectly polite, for example, as Cain-N’Degeocello informs them that his teenage daughter “free bleeds” onto an American flag. The bit works because even though he’s exactly the kind of liberal bogeyman bubble-trapped Republicans believe in, he seems well-intentioned. Billy Wayne Ruddick, an alt-right redneck conspiracy theorist, is another Cohen creation whose main function is to elicit horror mixed with pity. He’s not especially persuasive (Bernie Sanders just finds him bizarre), but the manners theory holds: Even Corey Lewandowski, the guy who said “Womp, womp” about a separated immigrant child with Down syndrome, appears to be in agony as he tries to respond to Billy Wayne’s theory that the Rastafarians are running PBS.
But there’s another kind of Cohen character, and it’s a much more dangerous one. Cohen’s winners—a billionaire Italian fashion photographer named Gio Monaldo and an Israeli colonel–Krav Maga instructor–ex-Mossad agent named Erran Morad—are lethal in ways his losers never can be. What these characters do is smash the alibi that Cohen’s targets were victims of their own politesse. The sketches with them are genuinely revealing in ways the others aren’t; they’re agents of disinhibition who give his targets an opportunity to show what they really are.
Because the Monaldo and Morad characters are aspirational—the targets see them as successful and strong and want to benefit from them—pity isn’t a tool they rely on. Gio Monaldo is always doing great, and his interlocutors are almost invariably superficial, grasping, and vain. His fashion subjects will agree to anything if it makes them look good, including being green-screened into a photograph of African orphans being fed to get credit for charitable work they didn’t do. The luxury-yacht salesman mentioned above will overlook anything—human trafficking, murder, and a blowjob being performed right in front of him as he pitches—if it means making the sale. This isn’t courtesy; it’s naked, shameless self-interest. (It’s also, as Willa Paskin observes, a high tolerance for crazy things on camera.)
But Cohen’s real trump card is Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli “anti-terrorism expert” who plays into every fantasy American conservatives seem to have about Israel. Many of the show’s targets show an admiration for him as uncritical as it is unstinting; for the most part, they’re putty in his hands. But I would argue that—unlike “pitiable” Baron Cohen characters, who tend toward absurdism in ways that frequently absolve the targets—Morad does reveal some pretty unsavory things about the American right. For one, the miasma of fear in which it simmers. This was Spencer’s excuse: He claimed he feared for his life and that Cohen “exploited my state of mind for profit and notoriety.” Shaun McCutcheon—an Alabamian Republican activist whose main achievement until now was helping to eliminate limits on aggregate campaign contributions—was similarly fearful, telling Morad that he has “a large concern about terrorism and the fact that terrorism is possibly coming to the United States more than it already has.” Three conservative men who decided to throw a fake quinceañera in order to entrap “illegal” Mexicans expressed similarly paranoid sentiments: One claimed that the purpose of the traditional coming-of-age party was to rape young girls.
You might think that marinating in fear like this—however manufactured the threat—would make these subjects want to display traditionally soldierly heroism, the kind Col. Morad embodies. Instead, Morad exposes these worshippers of military masculinity as almost parodically antiheroic. They’ll do anything as long as it’s called “training,” no matter how humiliating it is in their eyes, and if it will save their own skin. They’ll strip, photograph women’s genitals, display gay porn, mouth a dildo strapped to Morad’s groin. They’ll dress up as 15-year-old girls, lace guacamole with Rohypnol, dress up as what they understand “Muslims” to be in order to evade detection. One guy even throws a doll representing a baby with a “suicide diaper” in the trash. “We prefer to remove the bomb and put that away and save the baby if we can,” Morad has to tell him. These people, to a man, are motivated not by manners but cowardice. Their only goal is self-preservation.
Morad exposes those who already share his worldview by providing them a safe space to revel in it. Morad invites his targets into a Trumpian “locker room” where they can let loose. Joe Walsh may have felt discomfort with the pitch to arm children that he was asked to read off a teleprompter, but he was given an “award” to do it. Gun advocates like Larry Pratt are shown positively relishing Morad’s “joke” about spousal rape—Pratt has to wipe his eyes from laughing after Morad tells him that his wife shot him for raping her.
None of these guys are being polite. And the structural genius of Who Is America? is that it pops that excuse by airing these compromising segments next to sketches that feature Cohen’s more familiar courtesy-extraction gags. One result, intended or not, is that the viewer can clearly see the difference. Whether it’s Republican anti-porn crusader David Pyne firmly rejecting Dr. Nira’s reclamation of the word pedophile or even Joe Arpaio’s bizarre but mostly bewildered encounter with Finnish Youtuber OMGWhizzBoyOMG!, viewers see plenty of examples of people gamely coping with an obnoxious character. And yes, that can expose the ugly outer edges of what humans are willing to do in the name of accommodating the people in front of them. But Morad’s character exposes something quite different. The problem isn’t that our national character is too invested in civility. It’s that a certain segment of our population is desperate to be freed from it.
Update, Oct. 21, 2020: Emily VanDerWerff’s name has been updated.