Who is America? Sacha Baron Cohen’s new creation has none of the humanity of Ali G
Baron Cohen has created four new characters, all extreme parodies and none easy to warm to
Sacha Baron Cohen’s return to the fake interview format he pioneered with Ali G had created a furore even before the first episode of Who Is America? aired in the US (with a Channel 4 broadcast to follow on Monday at 10pm). Sarah Palin, interrupted from obscurity in Alaska, said she had been“duped” by the “evil” comedian while failed Republican senate candidate Roy Moore accused Baron Cohen of “trickery, deception and dishonesty” (and threatened to sue for good measure).
All of which will have sounded like a ringing endorsement to fans of Ali G, Borat and Brüno – the perverse and generally hilarious characters with which Cambridge-educated Baron Cohen assailed mainstream comedy through the late 1990s and early 2000s.
What those creations possessed – and which his glum and underwhelming new series lacks – was a bumbling sweetness to off-set the low brow scatalogical humour. But then, as the opening credits of Who Is America? forcefully reminds us, the United States of Donald Trump is very different from that of Obama or even George W Bush. Thus Borat and company’s well-intentioned inanity has been replaced by something starker and darker.
Baron Cohen has created four new characters, all extreme parodies and none easy to warm to. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr is a web TV “truther” presumably inspired by the InfoWars channel (which has variously asserted the Las Vegas shooting was a conspiracy and that Bill Gates heads a government weather control programme).
Sticking a finger in the eye of liberal America, meanwhile, is granola-munching activist Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, whose dearest wish is to “heal the divide” and who forbids his children from confirming to gender archetypes when using the toilet. These are joined by Rick Sherman, an ex-convict who creates outsider art with bodily fluids and Israeli antiterrorism expert and pro-gun campaigner Erran Morad.
All are blunt instrument caricatures, with none of the humanity and – to give you a sense of how pummelling the new series is – relative subtlety of Ali G or Borat. Morad, the gun-happy Israeli, delivers the big viral moment in episode one as he convinces several high-profile American politicians, including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, to endorse his “Kinderguardians” programme under which “talented” four-year-olds would be trained in firearm use as a defence against school shootings.
But while it is of course absurd and nauseating to see responsible adults advocate giving fire-arms to toddlers, it’s unclear how this meaningfully deepens anyone’s understanding of the gun control debate in America. Is it really surprising, for instance, that Morad could cajole pro-gun advocate Philip Van Cleave into participating in an information video in which loading a semi-automatic pistol is likened to feeding candy to a gun?
The segment is sickening rather than funny – though it’s possible Baron Cohen will take that as a compliment given that one of his earliest inspirations was the bit in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life in which an overweight man throws up repeatedly. This is the satirical equivalent.
The first of seven instalments otherwise underwhelms, with former Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders fending off the feeble Wayne Ruddick Jr and his assertion the US healthcare woes can be solved by expanding the “one percent” to 100 per cent of Americans (Sanders points out the flaw in his logic and calmly leaves it at that).
And it’s hard to ascertain who or what is being satirised by Cain-N’Degeocello, the appalling hipster. He breaks bread with a Trump-voting husband and wife and they come across as entirely respectful and reasonable in the face of his diatribe about gender norms. Presumably Baron Cohen had set out to skewer his targets – instead he humanises them, hoisting the liberal character on a laughter-free petard.
Even more baffling is outsider artist Sherman, who tests the politeness of a Los Angeles gallery owner with a disgusting painting. What is the point here? That Americans are unfailingly mannerly, no matter how absurd the situation? Is that satire – or merely pointing out the screamingly obvious?
The Palin and Roy Moore segments air later in the series and it’s possible they will vindicate Baron Cohen’s return to faux documentary. But for now the kindest that can be said about Who Is America? is that it accurately reflects the sour fatalism that has swept, contagion-style, through the US body politic.
Who? Is America airs on Channel 4 on Monday at 10pm