Sacha Baron Cohen’s new surprise Showtime series is ostensibly trying to answer the question, Who Is America? Another question it answers is, “Where has Sacha Baron Cohen been when we’ve needed him most?”
Apparently, the comedic genius behind the characters Ali G, Borat and Brüno has spent the better part of the Trump presidency traveling around the country, surreptitiously interviewing figures like former Vice President Dick Cheney, former vice presidential wannabe Sarah Palin, accused pedophile Roy Moore, and many more names still to emerge for what they apparently thought was some sort of legitimate political documentary with the working title Age of Reason.
The 46-year-old Brit has a long history of making the powerful look foolish. In the early 2000s, as Ali G, he sat down with people like Newt Gingrich, Gore Vidal and “Boutros Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali” and managed to completely humiliate them by pretending to have no idea what was going on. The approach predated the way Stephen Colbert would vanquish opponents on The Colbert Report by playing dumb and forcing them to defend their most outrageous positions.
For a 2003 episode, Ali G wormed his way into Trump Tower to pitch the soon-to-be host of The Apprentice on his idea for an ice cream cone glove that protects your hand from drips. It’s still a joy to watch Baron Cohen ask Donald Trump questions like, “How long has there been business?” Unlike Palin, who apparently sat with Cohen for quite some time, Trump claims he was smart enough to walk out after little more than a minute; according to Cohen, it was more like seven minutes, or “quite a long time.”
Despite his rise in fame over the past 15 years, Baron Cohen somehow managed to gain even more access to powerful people for this new series. He’s taken advantage of a media environment in which partisan figures are willing and eager to engage with those on the other end of the political spectrum regardless of how bizarre or outlandish they seem.
This phenomenon helps explain how Senator Bernie Sanders found himself in a room with Baron Cohen’s Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., a Rascal scooter-bound conspiracy theorist and founder of TruthBrary.org, trying to make sense of an inane plan to move the 99 percent into the one percent that has been verified by the “International Institute of Truth and Knowledge.”
That conservative imbecile—the same “disabled US veteran” who Sarah Palin says “duped” her—is just one of several new characters Baron Cohen portrays in the show’s premiere. Just as Dr. Ruddick told Palin in an open letter this week that he is not a “War Vet” but rather “in the service—not military, United Parcel,” he tells Sanders that he is not actually disabled but just trying to preserve his energy.
And in another move, perhaps meant to inoculate himself from Palin’s claims that he is “mocking” the disabled, the show’s opening credits pointedly remind viewers about that time Trump made fun of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from a congenital condition that affects his movement. A montage of presidential quotes moves from Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” to Trump’s “Aah, I don’t know what I said, aah, I don’t remember!”
Other characters include a British ex-con who creates art with his bodily fluids and, most effectively, an Israeli former Mossad agent who tackles America’s school-shooting epidemic with a program called “Kinderguardians” that aims to put guns in the hands of toddlers.
Incredibly, the fake initiative not only gets the endorsement of gun rights activists like Philip Van Cleave, once similarly duped by John Oliver on The Daily Show, and Gun Owners for America head Larry Platt, who can be seen laughing on screen at the host’s suggestion that “it’s not rape if it’s your wife,” but also receives supportive testimonials from several sitting members of Congress, including Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). If Rohrabacher’s Democratic opponent Harley Rouda isn’t using the clip in a campaign ad by next week, he’s doing something wrong.
Remarkably, the one politician Baron Cohen speaks to who refuses to endorse Kinderguardians on the spot is Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), known for bringing an infamous right-wing troll as his date to the State of the Union. Former Republican congressmen Trent Lott and Joe Walsh, on the other hand, had no problem looking into the camera and declaring that four-year-olds should be allowed to defend themselves with firearms.
In a recent article for Fox News’ website, a “source familiar with the project” described Who Is America? as a “total right-wing hit job” meant to make conservatives look bad and liberals look good. But that dubious report ignores one of the most promising new characters on the show, an NPR-listening, pussy hat-wearing progressive who is working through his grief over Hillary Clinton’s loss and his guilt about being a white, cisgender male by traveling the country to speak with Trump supporters.
The portrayal is as damning to the Left as the Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick character is to the Right and has the potential to humiliate Democratic politicians as much as we can only assume Palin is humiliated in her episode, should Baron Cohen choose to take things in that direction.
Ultimately, Who Is America? is a much-welcome return to form for Baron Cohen, who in recent years had strayed from the type of real, confrontational comedy that made him famous in the first place. In narrative films like The Dictator and more recently The Brothers Grimsby, he eschewed his reality-based style for a more traditional approach and the results were underwhelming. Without giving too much away, there are moments in the new show that are as deliriously hysterical and excruciating as the epic naked fight scene from Borat.
In the first episode of Who Is America?—and the second, which I’ve seen but am forbidden to discuss just yet—Baron Cohen proves that he still has what it takes to get under the thin skins of the powerful people he clearly believes are making America worse. Watching them show their true colors to the world has never been more satisfying.