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Who, Exactly, Is the ‘Who’ in Sacha Baron Cohen’s ‘Who Is America?’?

The comic prankster’s new Showtime series feels familiar. But for the first time, Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters are a detriment to his comedy.

Showtime/Ringer illustration

Sacha Baron Cohen disguises himself as an Italian socialite—white suit, blond wig, thick accent, svelte assistants, the works. He calls himself Gio Monaldo.

At a photo shoot, Cohen—rather, Monaldo—sits down with Bachelor contestant Corinne Olympios to discuss philanthropy. It’s a simple, seductive setup. Gradually, Cohen feeds Olympios a strange, embellished narrative about Olympios having prevailed upon some warlord to halt a massacre in Sierra Leone. Olympios plays along with Cohen’s fiction. She says yes, she did indeed meet an African warlord, who did, indeed, recognize her as a celebrity at which point she did, indeed, persuade him to cancel some imminent massacre. It’s all nonsense, of course. Together, Cohen and Olympios have—at Cohen’s insistence—cobbled together a wild, implausible fiction designed to present Olympios as a fame-chasing airhead.

Later in the episode, Olympios returns to narrate a fundraising appeal, framed as one of the show’s commercials; Olympios asks viewers to donate money to buy rocket-propelled grenades for child soldiers in need. Obviously, she sounds ridiculous. But the highly contrived nature of Cohen’s setup, and the editing, make it tough to perceive Olympios as some proud idiot; she isn’t playing herself so much as she’s getting played. Why’d he drag her into this? Who is the “who” in Who Is America? And what does Cohen, himself, represent?

For once, Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters are a detriment to his comedy. In his new series, Who Is America?, airing on Showtime, he rotates through several different characters of dubious design—a former Mossad agent, a cranky right-wing blogger, a Hillary Clinton apostle, that Italian fashion designer, et al. His characters are purely functional. They’re not breakout personae, such as the earlier Cohen characters, Ali G, Borat, and Brüno. In Who Is America?, Cohen doesn’t endear his new characters to the viewer through catchy sound bites and hyperdistinct characteristics. Here, Cohen’s characters are dispensable. They’re fodder, constructed primarily to guarantee the subject’s unwitting participation in his segments. If anything, Cohen’s cover stories confound Who Is America? by obscuring the logic of its segments and the significance of its guests. It’s a show that often humiliates its subjects for unclear reasons and toward arbitrary ends.

Since the show’s announcement earlier this month, Cohen’s critics have underscored the comedian’s perceived indiscretion, though they tend to focus on his show’s political impact. They agonize about the ethics and purpose of pranking political figureheads. Supposedly, Cohen’s deceptions are, inherently, a sort of fake news, and so his show stitches yet another layer of distrust between the media and the right wing. In the most recent episode, Cohen—in character as ex-Mossad agent Erran Morad—sits with Dick Cheney to discuss the former vice president’s “favorite” U.S. wars, a few of which he’s personally overseen, including the Iraq War.

Cheney—in his flat, sanctimonious way—repeats all his classic talking points about the Iraq War as Cohen sits across from him, struggling to heap his own gaffes onto Cheney. The segment doesn’t totally come together, if only because Cohen doesn’t seem to know what to do with Cheney now that he’s got him. The character is too weak, and so is Cohen’s pretext for resurrecting Cheney’s public profile. As Morad, Cohen does manage to humiliate Georgia state Representative Jason Spencer, a Republican who requires only a few minutes of camera time to embody every stereotypically regressive inclination—racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, warmongering—associated with the GOP. Spencer isn’t some clandestine white supremacist; he has largely based his public profile in his willingness to antagonize blacks and Muslims. Accordingly, Cohen invites Spencer to bare his ass—literally—in a counterterrorism exercise that’s obviously a joke. Granted, the joke isn’t so obvious to Spencer, who is seen shouting “nigger” in response to an ambiguous cue from Cohen; later he not only bares his ass, but does so repeatedly. The scene is all Spencer will be remembered for, and so the segment does seem like a clear and successful public service. Spencer’s is the rare humiliation that seems at once unambiguously successful and unambiguously deserved.

It wouldn’t be a Sacha Baron Cohen project if it didn’t bewilder its guests and its viewers alike; but most Who Is America? segments aren’t bewildering in the exhilarating sense so much as they’re out of focus. The show hangs in an awkward half-phase between comedy and insight, the two modes only sporadically fusing to form the ideal byproduct: satire. Cohen humiliated Spencer to reveal the absurd and shameless nature of his xenophobia. It’s much tougher to pinpoint what, if anything, he’s revealed through Olympios, Cheney, or the white Arizonans who disparage Muslims while vehemently opposing the construction of a massive mosque in their hometown in a segment that closed this week’s episode. Cohen does reveal some ugliness, and some ignorance. But it can all seem as oppressively familiar as your next-door neighbor of several decades—the one who “tolerates” blacks but doesn’t “welcome” them, by his own unsolicited admission.