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Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Who Is America?’ Is Best When It’s Not Funny

The comedian’s Showtime series has a familiar formula—ridiculous characters, unsuspecting guests—applied to 2018 absurdities. It’s impossible to look away.

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Spoiler alert

The legacy of Sacha Baron Cohen was secured years ago. With Da Ali G Show and Borat, the British comedian pioneered an anarchic, gonzo style of character comedy that itself had clear forebears in figures like Andy Kaufman, but also proved massively influential to the 21st century humor that followed. By creating fictional characters and inserting them into real-life situations, Cohen gave up much of the control and precision that typically goes into jokecraft, a risk that in turn yielded ample rewards. Borat, in particular, is an indelible document of Bush-era Americana, an outsider’s masterful exposé of heartland xenophobia leavened by a hefty dose of gross-out humor. There are visible fragments of Cohen DNA scattered across pop culture, from Conner O’Malley’s dispatches from Trump rallies to Kyle Mooney’s man-on-the-street SNL segments to the entire full-commitment ethos of Nathan for You.

But in the years since Borat, Cohen’s signature style resulted in diminishing returns. Brüno, the completion of an unofficial trilogy based on major characters from Da Ali G Show, was also the least critically embraced of the three, though still handsomely profitable. Cohen subsequently pivoted to efforts like The Dictator, which kept his larger-than-life characters safely apart from the free-wheeling chaos of actual life. Cohen promoted The Dictator in character, but the film itself is a straightforward narrative about a Muammar Gaddafi–like despot adrift in New York with a conventional script, cowritten by David Mandel (Veep) and Alec Berg (Barry). Cohen’s costars were established comic actors like Anna Faris and Jason Mantzoukas, not unwitting average citizens.

Factors outside of Cohen’s own career have only raised the burden of proof for Who Is America?, the seven-part Showtime series the comedian has spent the past year laboring on in secret. Some details have trickled out in advance, courtesy of free PR from gullible interview subjects like Sarah Palin and Roy Moore and a jarring clip of former vice president Dick Cheney: Cohen is taking aim at the radical fringes of the American right wing, now increasingly synonymous with its mainstream. Given the tone of American politics these days, getting audiences to laugh at their eccentricities is a tough ask. Merely sharing Cohen’s disgust may not be enough for character comedy to play in 2018, when the average internet user is subjected to a torrent of equally outrageous, disturbingly non-satirical figures every time they open their browsers.

Thus far, the Trump administration has been a case study in the limits of Cohen and his peers’ hyperbolic, persona-based approach. Week after week, Alec Baldwin’s Emmy-winning impression and Saturday Night Live’s cold opens in general have demonstrated just how hard it is to come up with fiction that’s stranger than truth. Meanwhile, Comedy Central’s The Opposition With Jordan Klepper, an attempt to update the Colbert Report model of mock-conservative punditry with an Alex Jones–like conspiracy theorist, recently threw in the towel, adjusting to a more sincere approach moving forward: “I figured maybe, right now, the world could use one less asshole,” Klepper said in a statement. So where does that leave Cohen’s coterie of disruptive, precisely observed … assholes?

The first episode of Who Is America?—I’ve seen two, though a non-disclosure agreement prohibits me from disclosing any details regarding the second—showcases many of the Cohen style’s natural pitfalls. But enough of its benefits are on display to make the case that Cohen, at his peak, is capable of eliciting responses no one else can. The typical Cohen scene resolves in his alter ego pushing his scene partner to their breaking point, either asking him to leave or forcing him to. Such a predetermined outcome feels almost routine at this point, and especially when inflicted on people who aren’t public figures, more than a little cruel. But when Cohen’s counterpart goes along with his antics, matching or even raising his lunacy, the equilibrium gets thrown off. And unpredictability is where Cohen’s comedy thrives.

Cohen introduces not just one new character in Who Is America?, but a whole cast of them. The first to be introduced, and arguably the weakest, is Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., the wheelchair-bound proprietor of Truthbrary.org. The opening shot of the series is part mic drop, part statement of purpose: Ruddick sits across from Bernie Sanders, a parody of this country’s right wing sparring with the most visible symbol of its left. Debating the finer points of Obamacare with a sitting senator, Ruddick’s delusions feel a bit too innocuous considering the extremists he’s modeled after. Ruddick buffoonishly grandstands about fitting the 99 percent into the 1 percent, a harmless troll that elicits nothing stronger from Sanders than some light condescension.

Ruddick’s liberal counterpart, Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, exhibits the polar-opposite ideology, though many of the same weaknesses, as Ruddick. A self-described “cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologize,” the pussy-hat-wearing NPR correspondent bikes across the country in an attempt to discover where things went wrong for “President Hillary Clinton.” While a fair representation of liberal shell shock, the character avoids insight less surface-level than a caricature of performative tolerance. Cohen aims for the low-hanging fruit, going to dinner with some wealthy conservatives and shocking them with tall tales of free-bleeding onto the flag and dating a dolphin. The scene is funny, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before at Borat’s dinner party: using a person’s willingness to believe the worst of those unlike them for shock value, unveiling their ignorance in the process.

Who Is America? takes a noticeable turn when Cohen’s subjects refuse to take his bait. The sole apolitical interlude in the Who Is America? premiere centers on Cohen’s Rick Sherman, a skinhead ex-con presenting his prison art to a gallerist. The paintings, Sherman informs his patient interviewer, are made of human fecal matter and ejaculate, a revelation clearly designed to unleash a torrent of disgust. The surprise is that she rolls with it, demonstrating a sincere curiosity about the work that could make her look credulous but instead produces a role reversal: It’s she who looks open-minded and up for anything, and Cohen who seems played by his own assumptions about the gallerist’s propriety. By scene’s end, she’s pulling her own pubes for the character’s collection, having successfully out-Cohened the man himself.

The end credits reveal that Nathan Fielder worked as a consulting producer on Who Is America?, and the premiere’s most effective gimmick is also the one that would feel most at home on Nathan for You, a demented stunt that highlights the depravity of its participants. Cohen’s Israeli operative goes to various right-wing lawmakers, media personalities, and gun advocates with a modest proposal: to stop mass shootings, don’t arm the teachers, the NRA’s ridiculous anti-solution of choice. Arm the children.

To ask whether what follows is “funny” feels almost beside the point. I can’t blame anyone who decides that a nauseating illustration of America’s psychosis is not what they want out of their Sunday night entertainment. Those who stick around, however, are treated to proof positive that the world has finally caught up with Cohen’s oeuvre. The twist is that Cohen’s guises no longer feel hilariously out of place when inserted into everyday life. They feel right at home, baring what ails this country better than any anthropological trend piece about Trump supporters. Just don’t expect a barrel of laughs.

The moment Republican congressman Matt Gaetz tells Cohen that most legislators would have to carefully weigh such a radical proposal before signing their name to it, you can sense what’s going to happen next: Former senator Trent Lott, former congressman Joe Walsh, and current congressman Joe Wilson all gamely throw themselves into a grotesque PSA introducing kindergarteners to their new best friend, “Puppy Pistol.” No one ever draws a line in the sand; no one ever calls Cohen’s bluff, a fact made all the more ridiculous by the distractingly obvious nature of Cohen’s facial prosthetics. It’s not so much satire as proving the people who currently run our country are beyond satire, in real time.

In these moments, the objects of Cohen’s derision currently holding the levers of American power actually works to his advantage. The utter lack of shame or compunction on display here is chilling, all the more so for its presentation in a style as absurd as its substance. When someone confidently spoke into the camera about the pheromone “Blink-182,” I giggled; when Cohen says, mid-banter with a gun lobbyist, “It’s not rape if it’s your wife, right?” and the man sitting across from him simply laughs, I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. These are people who can’t even be bothered to hide their worst impulses, or think through the consequences of their actions—why would they, if it’s gotten them this far? As mixed a bag as it may be, Who Is America? hasn’t left my thoughts since the moment I saw the credits roll, several days ago. It’s art for the age of kakistocracy.