Who Is America? (Channel 4), the new comedy from prankster Sacha Baron Cohen, was one of the most talked-about series of 2018 before a single episode had even aired. Now that one has, did it merit its billing as “the most dangerous show in TV history”? No. But it was gloriously funny to watch it fail.
Made by US network Showtime, the seven-parter has been shot undercover and shrouded in secrecy – partly because it takes aim at the political elite. Sarah Palin and others have already railed against being duped. One suspects they’re more embarrassed than outraged.
As creator of Ali G and Borat, Baron Cohen specialises in ambush interviews to take down high-profile targets. We met four new characters here: a conspiracy nut on a mobility scooter, an ex-con who painted with his bodily fluids, a painfully PC progressive and, best of all, an “Israeli” colonel who wanted to solve school shootings by giving guns to toddlers.
It occasionally felt like Baron Cohen wasn’t so much punching upwards as pushing the limits of people’s politeness. Senator Bernie Sanders just seemed baffled. A Trump-supporting couple and a gallery owner were models of patience. When Baron Cohen persuaded the latter to, ahem, “contribute” to his art, it verged on invasive. Surely she had rumbled the joke.
It was during the final 10 minutes that the show bared its teeth with an incendiary sequence about gun control, as Baron Cohen convinced a frankly frightening number of Republican congressmen to back his “Kinder-Guardians” campaign to arm toddlers. “Happy shooting, kids!”
Just as Ali G’s targets included Tony Benn, US liberals also felt the force of Baron Cohen’s ire. Political correctness was roundly mocked (“I’m a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologise”) and ObamaCare appeared in his crosshairs.
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Not all of Baron Cohen’s past creations have worked. Staines rude-boy Ali G and hapless Kazakh journalist Borat were hits, but the less said about gay fashionista Bruno and dictator Admiral General Aladeen the better. This quartet represented a return to form. He eschewed catchphrases or cartoonish characters, instead donning more plausible guises to draw out unwitting prejudices. As such, it recalled the work of Chris Morris (Brass Eye).
Even during the misfiring sketches, there were enough schoolboyish gags to keep viewers giggling along guiltily. Did it tell us who America is? Not really but it certainly reminded us who Sacha Baron Cohen is: one of the most merciless and subversive satirists at work today. Having created, written, starred in, directed and executive produced this frenetic show, he must be one of the most tired too.