At one point during the first episode of Showtime's Who Is America?, Larry Pratt, executive director of firearms lobbyist group Gun Owners of America, is cracking up over the idea of a man raping his own wife. This is before Sacha Baron Cohen, dressed as an Israeli anti-terrorism expert, convinces him to participate in a commercial for Kindergarten gun training in which children are encouraged to play with Uzi's disguised as teddy bears.
In any rational society, this would be more than enough to end the man's career. At the very least, it would be enough to start a conversation about pro-gun advocates and their love of these instruments of death. But this is America in 2018.
This is a country where Republican lawmakers looking into a camera and saying children should be taught how to kill with assault weapons and explosives (which Cohen gets them to do at the conclusion of Episode One) will likely engender support among some constituents. This is a country where reality TV star Donald Trump can be elected president after he's heard on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. In fact, the Access Hollywood tape could have been a scene from Who Is America? (if Billy Bush was trying to expose Trump's predatory nature, not laughing along with him).
What Cohen fearlessly sets out to do with Who Is America? is recreate moments like this through provocative comedy and subjects who are currently running the country. Unlike his previous characters, Ali G and Borat, and his less successful two follow-ups, Cohen isn't here to embarrass Americans and the occasional celebrity. This is about directly calling out lawmakers and, in some cases, tricking them into revealing their darkest natures. At his best, Cohen's characters are mirrors pointed directly at the xenophobic, homophobic, violent heart of America.
In terms of subversive, provocative comedy, Cohen has stayed relatively quiet through much of the 2010s. He rose to prominence in the early 2000s with HBO's Da Ali G Show, where he played three different characters-the titular Ali G, Borat, and Bruno-all of whom got their own feature length films. Borat remains Cohen's most famous work, for which he even won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy.
But his 2012 comedy, The Dictator, received mixed reviews. As the country went to shit ahead of the 2016 election, he remained notably absent. This July 4, Cohen resurfaced on Twitter with a mysterious announcement. He dug up the old video of then-reality star Donald Trump threatening him for a 2003 interview with Ali G. His tweet warned that he’d been working on something for the last year and was coming for Trump.
Since then, a number of Republicans-including Sarah Palin, Roy Moore, and radio host Joe Walsh-have shared their disgust at being duped by Cohen’s characters. They’ve even called for a boycott of Showtime. This has proved to be nothing but good promotion for the series.
Roy Moore says he was duped by Sacha Baron Cohen for his new CBS/Showtime series & threatens legal action "If Showtime airs a defamatory attack on my character..." pic.twitter.com/ovQjdXGyjw- Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) July 12, 2018
I was rushed to the studio, production was a mess, I sat down and we started talking pro-Israel stuff, Israeli defense, and then out of left field the interviewer starts talking about how children should defend themselves against terrorist attacks. #BoycottShowtime pic.twitter.com/kdwA0h9VyR- Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) July 11, 2018
The new show is structured as a series of interviews with a handful of new Cohen characters and unsuspecting rubes. There's the aforementioned Israeli anti-terrorism expert, an InfoWars-type conspiracy theorist who runs a website called Truthbary.org, an artistic ex-con, and a crunchy uber-liberal sporting an NPR shirt. These characters are deployed in specific situations to varying degrees of success.
Cohen uses the Israeli anti-terrorism expert to coax out the racism and violence of prominent Republican figures. The conspiracy theorist tries to unsuccessfully convince Bernie Sanders of a ridiculous plan to move the 99 percent over to the 1 percent. It doesn't work, and Sanders is the only one who leaves Episode One of Who Is America? with his dignity still intact.
Then there's the ex-con, who for some reason is trying to get his art (painted with his own bodily fluids) placed in a gallery. During a conversation with a gallery owner, the ex-con persuades her to donate her own pubic hair to use as his brush. It's absolutely disgusting, and it's weird, and it doesn't exactly track with the political leanings of the rest of the episode. The same goes for the liberal character in this episode, who sits down with a few (surprisingly) patient Trump supporters to explain that he's training his daughter to menstruate on the American Flag. Again, it's some of Cohen's classic gross-out humor that doesn't really go beyond shock value. These feel more like asides to the substance, and little more than filler to the bigger issues.
It's when he talks with lawmakers, lobbyists, and conservative talking heads that he does something impressive. The first episode ends with a half dozen Republican leaders voicing their approval of training American child soldiers. It's truly sickening that they will read-on camera-anything put in front of them and will go to such shameful lengths to appease gun nuts.
But since this is a time when shame is dead-when the president can brag about sexually assault women and defend white supremacists-there's very little chance these people will be held accountable for the things Cohen gets them to do or say. (As we've seen in the run-up to this show, they will blame Cohen, and Showtime, for bamboozling them.) So what, exactly, is Cohen trying to accomplish? It's not like comedians and late-night hosts have slowed down Trump and his followers. With Who Is America?, Cohen is giving these conservatives the encouragement and the platform to be themselves-to reveal their true natures and extreme views. It likely won't change anything. But, at the very least, his viewers can take some small, sick pleasure out of watching this country's ruling class make assholes of themselves on TV.
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