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‘Who Is America?’ and How Does Its Satire Work?

The uneven Sacha Baron Cohen show is a case study in both the appeal and the limitations of the comedian’s brand of humor

Showtime/Ringer illustration

It’s not surprising that, in just seven half-hour episodes, Who Is America? did not definitively explain our sprawling, self-contradictory nation. It did, however, resolve a different question of identity: Who is guerrilla comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, particularly now that reality outstrips exaggeration?

Because Cohen refracts himself through so many different characters—a British ex-convict, an Italian playboy, a YouTuber of indeterminate origin—it’s neither easy nor desirable to issue a blanket statement on whether Who Is America? was Good or Bad. The show is best understood as a case study in how and why Cohen’s particular brand of satire works, or often, doesn’t. The ensemble cast of Who Is America? displays Cohen’s approach through many different angles and intended targets. Some results, like the fake child gun infomercial in the premiere, managed to pierce even a mid-Trump-era audience’s well-callused sense of outrage. Others, like a shockingly toothless interview with Joe Arpaio, fell flat. At the Showtime experiment’s conclusion, there’s finally enough material to form a grand unified theory to explain the lows as well as the highs.

Sunday night’s finale centered itself on the show’s least and most successful characters. The former, Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., echoed the twang and bluster of certain MAGA types, yet never fully channeled their menace. Part of this failure has to do with the real-life politicians Cohen paired this persona with: largely left-of-center figures like Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, plus the occasional centrist like Ted Koppel. Faced with a larger-than-life version of their ostensible adversaries, Cohen’s interviewees largely exuded an exceedingly polite form of tolerance. For Sanders, Koppel, and finale guest Barney Frank, the effect was toothless, a flattering demonstration of people’s grace under pressure from someone theoretically trying to expose hypocrisy, sanctimony, or something equally unsavory. With Stein, a woman who quite literally has millions of things to account for, it was a glaring missed opportunity, presenting a bona fide grifter as a patient fount of common sense. An uninformed viewer would come away knowing Stein believes climate change is real and virtually nothing else about her.

Over and over, this strategy of antagonizing subjects with their supposed opposites elicited cringe, and not much else. Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, essentially Ruddick’s bicycling, male-privilege-renouncing counterpart, was no more successful in drawing out a well-to-do South Carolina couple’s prejudices than Ruddick was with Bernie’s; a sit-down with an anti-pornography crusader did more to make Cohen look boorish than lampoon or even interrogate the activist’s positions. The divide between Cohen’s OMGWhizzBoyOMG!, a PewDiePie-esque unboxing czar, and Arpaio is more aesthetic than principled. Still, Cohen’s gleeful inquiries about golden showers and handjobs merely stunned the former sheriff, turning a bigoted torturer into an endearingly befuddled old man. The sole exception to these mundane pairings was Cain-N’Degeocello’s Episode 2 outing to Kingman, Arizona, where Cohen successfully goaded a gathering of townspeople into naked, ugly racism by proposing the construction of a mosque. Still, the contrast between Cohen’s feigned extremism and the very real kind advocated by some of his guests largely resulted in a draw, keeping interviewees in their shell and Cohen overcompensating through antic yelling about dabs and fake news.

But the finale’s second protagonist is slated to go down as Who Is America?’s most indelible contribution. Clad in combat boots and distractingly obvious prosthetics, Erran Morad is an ex-Mossad agent obsessed with eradicating Islamic “terr-OR,” always pronounced with that guttural Hebraic flourish, like the “ch” in “challah.” Rather than opponents put on the defensive, almost all of Morad’s interlocutors are like-minded warriors, or so they think. Morad doesn’t back his scene partners into a corner; he lulls them into a false sense of security, making them enough at ease to elicit their most toxic lines of thought. They’re in like-minded company, after all.

It’s no coincidence that Morad is responsible for the gun sketch, which successfully roped a disturbingly large chunk of the GOP establishment into enthusiastically endorsing the arming of kindergartners. In subsequent episodes, the Morad character put a Georgia state representative into retirement by convincing him to scream racial slurs and undress himself on camera; got an Alabama Trump delegate to wave pork at an imaginary terrorist like a cross at a vampire; and called the cops on some border wall advocates plotting to roofie a quinceañera. For his final act, Morad brought a Trump true believer to the San Francisco Women’s March, then convinced him he could—and did—murder a liberal using a remote explosive device. A foreign Jew himself, Cohen seemed to have the firmest handle on both Morad’s personality and his likely effect on people like Joe Walsh. There’s real power in watching a Jewish comedian leverage others’ stereotypes of Israel, and assumptions about Israeli masculinity, into playing themselves spectacularly on national television.

It ought to be noted that even the stronger Morad bits were typically shot through with lazy homophobia, asking participants to hold up gay porn or pose as a lesbian couple. (It’s the kind of humor Cohen and his writers would surely argue is exposing his subjects’ homophobia, but largely serves to demonstrate that Cohen thinks homsexuality is a punch line in itself.) Faux-millionaire Gio Monaldo employs a more nakedly consumerist version of Morad’s convivial ante-upping. But except for a yacht merchant who enthusiastically entertains Gio’s fantasies of gunning down Syrian refugees in the water, most of Gio’s interviewees don’t seem worth his contempt. What’s the point of demonstrating a professional reality villain who doesn’t know her African geopolitics? At best, it’s confirming an image Corinne Olympios already uses to make money; at worst, it’s pointless, borderline misogynist mockery from an all-male creative team.

Monaldo is actually the star of Who Is America?’s final segment, an intended mic drop that instead demonstrates the series’ shortcomings. The mere presence of a post-prison O.J. Simpson is enough to elicit a gasp by itself. But unlike Morad’s GOP laymen and freshly empowered buffoons, Simpson has much more experience defending his image. The suspected-yet-exonerated murderer predictably doesn’t fall for Monaldo’s amped-up bro talk, though it’s admittedly funny to watch his reaction while Cohen mimes a stabbing. Mostly, he just laughs and pleads with Cohen-as-Gio to stop bringing up his ex-wife. As with Stein and Sanders, Simpson doesn’t take the bait, leaving Cohen to take up the space his costar won’t.

Every scene of Who Is America?, including Simpson’s, ends with an unflattering freeze frame—a wordless yet unmistakable “gotcha!.” As a framing device, the transition implied a self-imposed standard Cohen only occasionally met. Who Is America? was shot like an exposé, promising to reveal something about America that America hadn’t already gleefully revealed to the rest of the world. It’s true that Cohen went to greater lengths than most in his attempt, venturing into the dark heart of our national psychosis. But even elaborate costumes and choreographed sting operations proved insufficient without a defined sense of Cohen’s own strengths. Who Is America? had its moments. It could have had more, if only the writers realized why those moments happened in the first place.