'Who is America?' first look review: When Sacha Baron Cohen hits the target, he's irresistible
Does the much-hyped show live up to its promise?
The teasing of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new series Who is America? has been a masterclass in building hype. Big names? Check: Dick Cheney and the big dog himself, The Donald, were rolled out in teaser clips, while other figures scrambled to make statements prior to the show airing for fear of the damage about to be unleashed - one of which was Sarah Palin telling us all how stupid Baron Cohen made her look and providing us with a magnificent example of how not to manage an impending PR disaster.
And then there was the Sunday posting of a truly astonishing ten minute clip of Who is America? on YouTube - taken from episode 1 as it transpired - all of which ensured that we were all definitely going to be tuning in, as a range of gun advocates were ‘tricked’ into making a promotional video for children as young as three to be trained to use firearms.
If the rest of this seven episode series was anywhere near as shocking as that, it felt like we could be about to witness something truly gamechanging: shining a mirror on the true state of America such that even the most ardent of right-wing, gun-loving, Trump-supporting citizens would be confronted with the hideous, awful truth of what their nation has become. At the very least, it would be the Brass Eye of its time, a mercilessly laser-guided satire confronting, as Chris Morris did, pomposity and stupidity of any type.
On the evidence of episode one, however, I regret to inform you that Who Is America? is unlikely to be upending Western civilization any time soon. But first: a rewind.
It’s easy to forget how superb Ali G was - it quickly became clear, in the extremely hit-and-miss environment of The 11 O’Clock Show, that this was something special. Very, very quickly, his short segments became the talk of the town and it was inevitable that his own show would be forthcoming. Playing on a mix of tactics aimed towards confusing, flattering and shocking his interviewees, Baron Cohen succeeded as Ali G by appearing to be unthreatening and unknowledgeable, to the extent that his subjects would be unable to contain their own egos, let their guard down and let slip with their actual opinions. The few who came out of it well - Tony Benn being a notable example - were those who actually tried to engage with what Ali G was saying, were sympathetic to the gaps in his knowledge, and didn’t simply revel in their apparent intellectual superiority.
Borat and Bruno employed similar tactics, with both upping the shock factor, and both succeeded fantastically churning up tabloid interest and viewing figures alike. After the relative dud of The Dictator and the definite dud of Grimbsy, it’s clear very early on in Who is America? that Baron Cohen has gone back to basics in terms of format - only this time relying on heavy prosthetics to conceal his now very-recognisable face to play four characters (there may be more in the ensuing episodes).
First up was Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., a far-right conspiracy theorist who publishes his findings on the website TRUTHBRARY.org (as opposed to LIEbrary, obviously). Sadly for viewers, despite landing the biggest name of the opening episode, in the form of Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, he was the least interesting character of the four.
Sanders seemed to realise extremely quickly what he was dealing with - essentially a total buffoon with no comprehension of logic, science or reason. Ruddick attempted to bait Sanders by blaming Obamacare because it forced him to go to the doctor and find out he had “two types of diabetes, obese legs and chalky deposits” - and, after a brief period of trying to engage with him, Sanders eventually simply gave up. Ruddick’s skit on how the 99% could fit into the 1% was stupid enough to be funny in and of itself, but also, unfortunately, so stupid that it stopped him getting anything of value out of Sanders.
Related: ’Brass Eye’ two decades on: the unstoppable genius of Chris Morris
Similarly, the next character Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a lecturer on Gender Studies at Reed College, co-principal at Wildfields Poly-Ed, and a liberal Democratic activist who introduced himself as “a cis-gender white heterosexual male, for which I apologise,” could have sparked chaos as he had dinner with Trump supporter Jane Page Thompson and her husband in their South Carolina home.
However, again, he ramped up his wetness and extreme liberalness so early on that, instead of lulling his subjects into a false sense of security and then gradually provoking them into revealing some awkward truths about themselves and their motivations, Baron Cohen’s subjects simply disengaged fairly early on in the conversation. It was clear that, even though they probably believe everything they read on Fox News about ‘Libtards’, Cain-N’Degeocello was too much even for them, reducing the whole thing to a barely-believable, if still reasonably funny monologue from Baron Cohen. Thompson meanwhile, managed to come across as something of a sympathetic, albeit misguided, host.
More interesting was Rick Sherman, an ex-convict character turned artist, recently released after 21 years (he only committed one crime, just 14 times, he explained, in a genuine laugh out loud moment) who uses bodily fluids in his artworks. Attempting to obtain representation for his art, he visits an art gallery where an incredibly kind - or at least endearingly naive - gallery owner, humours him throughout.
In contrast to the previous two characters, Sherman was actually very likeable, and you were almost willing him to actually be a good artist; even as he produced a piece ‘inspired’ by the female gallery owner - with Baron Cohen predictably going off-screen to whip up some ‘white paint’ to use - it achieved the rare feat of being both gross and actually strangely endearing. Instead of saying anything about the gallery owner, it instead said more about the viewer - well, this one, at least - that I was desperate for him to find redemption via his cum-and-faeces artwork. I certainly wasn’t expecting that when the show began.
“In Baron Cohen’s hands you suspect if he told them that gravity was against the Second Amendment they’d vote to abolish it”
However, while these opening three segments were something of a disappointment in terms of what was promised by the teasers and PR build up, the final segment - that ten minute long, previously released clip, lost absolutely none of its impact on a repeat viewing, bringing the show to a climax (the second of the night after Rick’s) in stunning fashion.
Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert and colonel in the Israeli military, is the perfect Baron Cohen character, allowing him to indulge in simple, macho posturing which brings out the absolute worst in his equally simple, macho subjects, including a truly shocking moment where he manages to get Larry Pratt, the Executive Director Emeritus of Gun Owners of America to jokingly agree with him that ‘it’s not rape if it’s your wife’.
The whole thing is an absolutely expert demonstration, and deconstruction of people who have lost all sense of reason, or logic; their brains eaten away by decades of propaganda and twisted reasoning. They may all be relatively unknown outside of NRA circles but they represent perhaps millions of people who are empty, unthinking shells - devoid of any sense of reality. When he gets it right, in Baron Cohen’s hands you suspect if he told them that gravity was against the Second Amendment they’d vote to abolish it. To see these people completely exposed is equally parts horrifying and hugely compelling to watch.
As the credits roll, it’s clear: this is not on an intellectual level with Brass Eye - Chris Morris is still the unbeaten master of that form of cutting satire. But then, it’s not trying to be.
Sacha Baron Cohen has clearly decided - despite the advance messaging - not to make the whole thing have a message, or a mission, or to spend his whole time making political points. Instead, he’s decided to have a bit of stupid fun as well. Is that a shame? Perhaps, since an entire series of the level of the gun segment would have been gamechanging, but then Sacha Cohen is pretty bloody good at the stupid fun and he is, after all, primarily an entertainer. We laughed at Ali G because he had some great lines to laugh at, as well as laughing at the skewering of his interviewees.
With six episodes left to run though, you’d like to assume that he’s a got a few more great moments of shock and awe to come. Even if there’s only ten minutes of ‘gun-quality’ material in every show, it’s still going to be the show everyone talks about around the proverbial water-cooler for the next few weeks and inspiration for a whole host of bordline offensive accents and Halloween outfits come October.
Who is America? continues on Channel 4 next Monday 23 July, watch episode one on Channel4.com