Yes, yes and yes. Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new satire series is sometimes savage. Yes, he can be shockingly indelicate and, yes, there are gullible victims who fall completely for his act.
Right-wing media in the U.S. have already called for Cohen’s head, asserting that he tricked Sarah Palin into an outlandishly vulgar conversation. Roy Moore, the defeated Republican senatorial candidate who ran for office while nine women accused him of sexual misconduct, has also admitted to being duped, and accused the comedian of “trickery, deception and dishonesty,” claiming that the show seeks to “embarrass, humiliate and mock.”
Yes, but are these victims, really? Some of the people Cohen attacks mercilessly want to put guns in the hands of toddlers.
The important thing to know about Who is America?, made for Showtime (streaming here on CraveTV starting Sunday), is that it is not exactly as advertised by the right-wing media. Cohen mocks everyone, including, and without mercy, Democrats and the anti-Trump liberal left. No one is spared. His targets are pomposity, complacency and ignorance.
Cohen has spent over a year on a covert operation. It’s dirty work done with Swiftian indignation. Be prepared to laugh, cringe and occasionally feel your stomach turn in revulsion.
The first episode is a doozy of darkly comic but all too plausible encounters. Cohen poses as Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D, a guy in a wheelchair who is vague about his background and disability. He spews nonsensical conspiracy theories and his math is cockamamie stuff. His first victim is Bernie Sanders. In a surreal conversation he attacks Obamacare and Sanders tries manfully to point out the illogic of Billy’s position.
Cohen used the Billy Wayne character to interview Palin and, no, he doesn’t claim to be an injured veteran. Cohen cleverly uses a disguise and demeanour that causes people to make assumptions about him. It is a masterful comic creation.
Next, Cohen assumes the persona of a liberal husband and father deeply curious about Trump supporters and white privilege. He gets invited to dinner by a couple who are staunch Republicans and pro-Trump. They treat him with great respect as he explains his code for living. He says he fights against gender stereotypes in his home and commands his daughter to urinate standing up. The daughter is also obliged to menstruate on the American flag and he says his wife had an affair with a dolphin.
Who is being mocked here? Certainly not the Trump supporters, who are appalled but unfailingly polite. See, Cohen’s genius is his ability to scoff at both sides, to mock an entire society. The characters he creates and inhabits are as much the casualty of his rage as those he dupes into being interviewed. What happens with a woman who is an art gallery owner when she is confronted with a Cohen creation, an ex-con claiming to be an artist, beggars belief. But the woman condemns herself.
At its centre the first episode has a small masterpiece of lampoonery that will make the hairs on your head stand up. Acting as “Col. Erran Morrad,” an alleged anti-terrorism expert, Cohen says he wants to stop school shootings by getting guns into the hands of children. Toddlers even. He wants kids in kindergarten armed to the teeth. He gets a ton of support from the pro-gun lobby and easily convinces some important figures to help him make an educational video, something that teaches little kids – in a fun way – how to shoot kill others.
The video gets made, we see it and then it is pitched at various senators and members of Congress for wide distribution. What you see is the pro-gun lobby drunk with power, oblivious to the sheer awfulness of world in which tykes are armed and taught to kill.
In his previous outings as Ali G, Borat and Bruno, Cohen’s satire has used the weapon of exaggeration. Here, enraged by the state of things in the U.S., exaggeration is only one weapon in his satiric arsenal. He uses understatement; he parodies and burlesques like an addled, despairing comedian; he presents us with a virtue and turns it into a vice. On the evidence of the first episode, there is no sacred cow he does not assault.
Watching it, one is reminded what it says in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: Mankind is “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”