Should You Bother Watching: ‘Who Is America?’
Does Sacha Baron Cohen's satire work in 2018, when politicians have little regard for reason or logic?
Welcome to ‘Should You Bother Watching’, Junkee’s new column which helps to answer the streaming-age’s biggest question: is this show for me?
When those in power can not be argued against with logic or reason, how can political satire work? It’s the question that overhangs the first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new interview series, Who Is America? — and it’s one that its still working out.
There’s a lot of hype around Who Is America?, largely as it marks Baron Cohen’s first interview series in five years. The British comedian’s best known for his ridiculous characters (Borat, Ali G, Brüno), who goad their interviewees into revealing their most hypocritical, offensive or completely illogical views. Over the past two decades, targets span the spectrum of politics and pop culture, ranging from Donald Trump to Gore Vidal, David Beckham to Buzz Aldrin.
But Ali G and Borat existed in another world, one where senseless waffle or abhorrent views could be a source of shame — as The Hollywood Reporter wrote in its review, Who Is America? exists in a climate where facts are proudly and aggressively disregarded by politicians and public figures, let alone your neighbour with an alt-right Twitter account.
Here’s a quick run-down of the pros and cons of episode one, so you can work out whether it’s a fit for you — or whether you should just wait for the weekly headlines.
It’s As Wild As Ever
Baron Cohen has made a career from unpredictable antics — and despite being in the game for nearly 20 years, he’s still packing plenty of surprises. Watching Who Is America? is a wild ride, partially because of the secrecy around the project.
With episode one, we’ve learnt how Baron Cohen plans to lampoon America’s splintered ideological landscape. Who Is America? is actually several shows-within-a-show, each hosted by their own Baron Cohen character. Jumping between them can be a little jarring, but there’s a thrill in the uncharted territory.
We’ve met four characters — though at least a few more are coming in later episodes. In the first episode, a Trump-supporting journalist-blogger interviews Bernie Sanders; an ex-con visits an art gallery with portraits painted with his own bodily waste; a progressive NPR parody tries to repair America through one dinner with South Carolina conservatives; and an Israeli anti-terrorist expert attempts to solve America’s gun violence.
It’s a lot to pack into 28 minutes — and frankly, the show’s a little uneven because of it. But in terms of shock value, Who Is America? skyrockets.
When It Bites, It Bites Hard
Of the first episode’s four characters, only one really hits a home run by keeping its subject’s beliefs as the punchline.
You’ve probably seen the headlines: as Israeli terrorist expert Erran Morad, Baron Cohen convinces right-wing lawmakers, politicians and gun rights activists to support “Kinder-Guardians”, a program which would put guns in the hands of preschoolers.
It’s confounding how many agree — and it’s taken to its terrifying extreme when gun rights advocate Philip van Cleave agrees to shoot an instructional video using guns morphed into child-friendly fluffy animals.
Watching van Cleave talk about how “Puppy Pistol” can ‘make bad men go away’ is nauseating. Who Is America? lets van Cleave’s absurdity hang in the air, and it’s all the more powerful for it.
Too Many Cooks
As mentioned above, there’s a lot going on in the first episode. Answering the show’s titular question requires a divide-and-conquer approach — with America as splintered as it is, it makes sense to adopt a pantheon of guises.
But most of these characters lack bite — at least so far. Opening with Bernie Sanders is a clear message that the show plans to shoot left and right, though it’s not clear what those shots are.
While it’s funny at first to see Sanders attempt to explain what Obamacare is to his interviewer, the air’s sucked out when Sanders remains calm and rational. It’s clear that this interview isn’t particularly abnormal to Sanders — alt-right trolls are just part of his everyday encounters with the world. You’re left wondering what point is being made, if any.
So too with ex-con Rick Sherman’s segment, where he presents his prison art made from bodily waste to a gallery owner. It’s a classic gross-out gag, but the gallerist doesn’t buy into it — she’s polite and interested, and even donates several of her own pubic hairs to Sherman’s makeshift paintbrush.
It’s entertaining, but anti-climactic. The joke is mostly on Sherman, and so the skit feels like it’d be more at home in one of Baron Cohen’s fictional films, like The Dictator.
Satire? I Hardly Know Her
The show’s biggest hurdle is one it can’t really control — the state of the union.
Baron Cohen’s previous shows worked on a pretence of shame. When a group of white frat boys told Borat they wished slavery continued to this day, half the joke was in uncovering what they truly thought but would only say among friends (and they’d later unsuccessfully try to sue Baron Cohen for ruining their lives, too).
But in 2018, people say abhorrent shit all the time without shame — in fact, a whole industry of Fox New pundits have made careers and international tours out of it.
As Daniel Fienberg writes in his review for The Hollywood Reporter, “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. ”
Can Baron Cohen still get those same ‘gotcha’ moments he’s known for? As of the first episode, it’s not clear.
Sanders interview was shocking, but quickly fell flat.
So, Is It Worth Watching?
Truthfully, you probably made up your mind on Who Is America? before it even aired. Baron Cohen’s a divisive figure, and by this point, a new show is unlikely to sway how you feel.
Who Is America?‘s multi-show structure is well-suited to our current cultural moment, though it’s prone to stretching itself thin. Inevitably, some segments and characters will prove stronger than others, which, if episode one is anything to go off, will create a somewhat uneven watching experience. But so were Ali G, and Borat. It comes with the territory.
With six more episodes to air, we’re confident that each will likely contain a shocking, headline-generating moment, as with the premiere’s gun-control segment. The first episode of Who Is America? is at its worst when the payoff isn’t worth the facial prosthetics, and it forgets to interrogate its titular question. But the show’s undoubtably worth watching for those incredulous interviews that Baron Cohen’s made his career from — we just hope they come a little more often.
Who Is America? is available on Stan, with episodes dropping weekly.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.