Sacha Baron Cohen’s undressing of modern America has gone viral, but all that glitters is not gold.
If you’ve been on the Internet at all, or around the proverbial water cooler, chances are you’ve encountered Sacha Baron Cohen’s new political satire series, Who is America?, or at the very least, the viral portion which saw him pose as the brains behind a program that looked to arm children.
It’s Cohen’s first foray into the “dress up as something ridiculous and see if people believe me” genre since Brüno. And don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a genre I disapprove of. Although Borat might not have been to everyone’s tastes, it definitely held up a mirror to America in a way that little else had done for some time.
Cohen is trying to recapture this feeling, this time with more elaborate costuming. This is mostly due to the fact he is now internationally recognisable. Growing a moustache simply doesn’t cut it anymore.
But something is lacking, at least from the first episode of the series. The “Kinderguardians” is, in my opinion, perfect. It dives in to make its point, it does so – with gusto – and then it leaves you with the distaste you are supposed to feel. To an extent the Faeces Artist segment also does this, lampooning the way we look at art, and also giving us an unlikely folk hero in the figure of Christy Cones. Her gameness to interact with Rich Sharron (Cohen’s fictional ex-con who paints using his own faeces) was, honestly, commendable. I hope to see more of Rich over the rest of the series.
But, half the episode left me wanting literally anything of value. The opening interview is this made up Infowars type character, Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr, who sits down with Bernie Sanders to discuss Obamacare and the 1%. The majority of the bit is Billy saying that America should make “the rest of the 99% into the 1% while also keeping the 1%” and Bernie Sanders looking into the camera as if it were an episode of The Office.
The bit flops because it lacks what makes “Kinderguardians” and “Faeces Artist” work, the key to making biting political satire, and that is that the subject has to be the punchline. Making the character Cohen is playing the only punchline to the bit is just looking for a cheap giggle, a cringe-worthy moment that would feel more at home on an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Sanders is clearly not engaging with Billy’s crazy ideas, and so the interview falls flat because the butt of the joke – which should be finding some sort of contradiction or craziness in Sanders’ politics – is, instead, just making Sanders uncomfortable with this nonsense character.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a genre I disapprove of. Although Borat might not have been to everyone’s tastes, it definitely held up a mirror to America in a way that little else had done for some time.
The same goes for his NPR-shirt wearing Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a “cisgendered straight white male, for which I apologise”. This feels like a right-wing troll’s version of a liberal they would invent to “own the beta cuck libs”. It’s not very clever, because Nira does come across as insane.
He sits down with a very conservative, and obviously wealthy, Trump-supporting couple in South Carolina, Jane Page Thompson and her husband Mark. The bit would work if Nira were to espouse reasonable views, while dressed in a “lib” uniform, and getting the straight-laced couple to react as if he were a madman for wanting better healthcare or a better minimum wage. The gist of Cohen’s jokes is usually to get people to go along with his outrageous ideas, or to come up against reasonable ones.
Instead, with this character, he comes across as a crazy person, a stereotype conservatives must dream are the only liberals who exist in the world. I actually identified with them more than I did Cohen, especially when Mark answers a question from an off-camera producer about what he thought of Nira’s value system.
“Can I be crudely honest?” Mark asks. “Fucked up.”
Yeah, Mark, I agree. This bit, once more, falls flat because the subject of the satirical interview comes across as the reasonable one. That’s not really how biting social commentary is made. Once again, to flog the dead horse of my point, Cohen’s comedy works best when the subject is the butt of the joke, when they agree to film a gun training video for toddlers, or when they clap and hoot as a Kazakhstani man sings Throw the Jew Down the Well.
These bits stand out because they highlight the inherent madness in some people’s thinking, in an attempt to say, “See? Something is broken here. Something needs to be done.” But by making himself the gag in a scene, all he’s saying is, “Look how funny I am, I made some people uncomfortable.”
And maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, it’s only the first episode. I look forward to more, as long as it as clever and as outrageous as it can be. Otherwise, what’s the point?