When Sacha Baron Cohen first burst onto the scene with Ali G, Borat and Bruno on British television in 2000 (and then HBO in 2003), you have to remember what America was then.
No social media. No hyper-awareness.
When he filmed Borat, he could still fool most of the people most of the time, even if he had help, in some cases, from co-conspirators (see: stand-up comedian Luenell portraying a prostitute to scare a white Christian family). By the time he made a Bruno movie in 2009, though, Americans and their cameraphones and the globabl paparazzi were onto him. Making it much more difficult for the highest-profile prankster in the land to pull off his tricks.
No wonder Baron Cohen turned to making “legit” movies.
No wonder, even further, that he seemed to disappear from our cultural consciousness. He had to if he ever wanted to surprise us once more.
He certainly has achieved that and more with Who Is America?, his new blockbuster satirical series for Showtime. Before it even premiered on the TV this Sunday night, Sarah Palin and others were railing against Baron Cohen and Showtime for duping them. But as then President George W. Bush put it back when Borat was king: “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. If you fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”
The first of these seven episodes introduces us to Baron Cohen’s four new disguises. In three of them, Baron Cohen remains the butt of the joke, no matter how much he tries to shift the laughter to his target. In the fourth, however, he has found more powerful targets to take down, even if it’s sad how easy it may be to mock them.
Up first: The easiest for us to recognize and ease us in to the series, a right-wing conspiracy theorist waging war against the truth. Alex Jones over at InfoWars may troll us all under the guise of performance art, but does he have a Ph.D like Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick, Jr.?
Ruddick tricked Palin with his truthbrary.org (take that “liebrary,” get it?), which Cohen’s crew did build as a real website, complete with all of your most basic already-debunked items such as “Obama is a Kenyan,” plus such classics as “Crooked Hillary,” 9/11 truth bombs, “The Apollo Hoax,” and “Hollywood Satanic Elite.” Ruddick couldn’t quite pull the wool over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, though he did get an audience with him. You see Sanders’s eyes dart and roll while hearing the faulty math and b.s. come out of Ruddick’s mouth. Sanders tries to talk to him briefly as a normal constituent, but quickly gives up, telling him: “I don’t know what you’re talking about? I really don’t.”
Baron Cohen’s second character looks like a caricature of Larry David, and portrays himself as the guiltiest liberal white man, wearing an NPR shirt to dinner in the home of a South Carolinian couple who attended the 2016 GOP Convention to vote for Trump. This couple had to be blissfully unaware of Baron Cohen’s previous work to not recognize him, but also fortunately for them, they remain examples of Southern courtesy and decorum as they prove more tolerant of him than his character is of his own children. In this setting, Baron Cohen’s the only deplorable one at the dinner table.
Same goes for the one segment hatched as an actual “reality” show, Ex-Con Second Chance. Despite the shock value of Rick Sherman’s choice to use his own bodily fluids to make art, and convincing the woman who runs an art gallery in Laguna Beach, Calif., to cooperate with him, she remains a voice of sanity amid Baron Cohen’s chaos.
“I think we’re all mad. I think we’re all normal at the same time,” she tells him.
Perhaps this really is America?
And then there’s the “terrorist terminator” from Mossad, who makes the guys from Munich seem like sissies — but he’s the guy who really gets one over on the Republican establishment, like “gun rights activist” Philip Van Cleave.
Nobody messed with the Zohan. But Col. Morad? Almost every Republican and gun-loving conservative appears willing to get into whatever mess Morad asks them to, particularly his pitch for Kinder Guardians, a program training kids as young as 4 how to shoot guns. Van Cleave says kids make great soldiers because they haven’t developed a sense of right and wrong (WOWOWOW) and jumps right into a video with Morad teaching toddlers using Puppy Pistol. “Fo feed him take this lunchbox and push it into his tummy,” Van Cleave demonstrates. “Just remember to point puppy pistol’s mouth right at the middle of the bad man.” Larry Pratt with the Gun Owners of America also has no hesitations, even if he believes the rest of America isn’t ready for more guns: “They’re so prejudiced against young people having guns, and especially in a school.”
The starkest difference between the gun lobbyists and the art gallery owner or the Republican couple or Bernie Sanders is that Baron Cohen and his camera crew didn’t have to coax any of the gun lobbyists into espousing their true beliefs.
Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz fails to fall for the bait, telling Baron Cohen as Morad: “Typically members of Congress don’t just hear a story about a program and indicate whether they support it or not.”
Cut to plenty who do and will! Like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Current California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, who says: “A 3-year-old cannot defend itself from a assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it. Our Founding Fathers did not put an age limit on the Second Amendment.”
The conceit throughout Who Is America? remains the same no matter the character. What will Americans do in 2018 when cameras roll? What will they put up with for some camera time? What will they reveal about themselves, and about America? His targets don’t think this is a joke or a prank. They believe the hook that they’re contributing to something real for a good cause.
For viewers, we’re left to wonder which causes are good ones.
One final note on his writing and production staff.
While Baron Cohen continues to employee trusted writers/producers such as Peter Baynham (who wrote with him on Borat, Bruno and The Brothers Grimsby), he’s now also employed the help of experienced Daily Show veterans Josh Lieb and Adam Lowitt, former Inside Amy Schumer scribe Kurt Metzger, and Nathan For You‘s Nathan Fielder. Fielder’s expertise in handling awkward situations is unparalleled. And you can see their handiwork, particularly in the Morad segments.
While it’s amusing to watch an old conservative read off a teleprompter and unwittingly reference Cardi B and Wiz Khalifa as if they were scientific conditions and not musical artists, the real high-wire act remains Baron Cohen’s ability to improvise with his unsuspecting guests without exposing the whole magic trick.
And that’s what keeps him eminently watchable. Especially as Morad.