Who Is America?, the latest undercover gotcha-comedy from English master of shenanigans Sacha Baron Cohen, feels like something coming along roughly two years and one presidential election too late. Touted by Showtime as the “the most dangerous show in the history of television,” the series sees Cohen donning four wigged up personalities—Infowars-like crazy person Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., overwhelmingly apologetic liberal Nira Cain-N’Gegocello, former convict turned poo-artist Rick Sherman, and Israeli “terrorist terminator” Col. Erran Morad—to expose the “real” and “shocking” thoughts out of America’s most influential minds across both sides of the political divide. Or, to essentially, answer the question asked by the show’s title on a fundamental, ground-level layer.
The problem, though, is that we, uh, already know the answer to that question. Donald Glover did the work for us two months ago. The current President of these here gosh dang United States mocked a reporter’s physical disability on camera, live, in front of thousands of cheering people in November of 2015. We are living in a post-shame, post-consequences Hellmouth in which a talking head saying some truly monstrous bullshit on TV just means it’s a day ending in Y. The NRA is evil incarnate, Joe Walsh is a suntanned piece of garbage granted life by a dark wizard, and laughing at these things in Who Is America? feels a lot like laughing at a tsunami after it already destroyed your house.
And that’s almost a shame, because the sheer effort, if nothing else, that Cohen put into making this show is impressive. I wrote briefly last week about the challenge the filmmaker must have faced to create a show secretly in the age of the camera phone and social media. Cohen answered that challenge by giving each of his four alter-egos a slew of eye-distracting characteristics—a Jazzy scooter, a neck brace, a disturbingly inflated set of muscles—to effectively distract from his otherwise famous face.
The other thing Cohen has going for him is the fact a lot of these interview subjects are just really fucking dumb, heinous people.
But again, this isn’t shocking! In another, saner era of human existence, every single person involved in the premiere’s most memorable segment—in which Cohen, disguised as Morad, convinces a slew of gun right’s advocates and politicians to unironically advocate for a child-arming program named “KinderGuardians”—would be endlessly apologizing, if not resigning, if not blasting themselves into outer space after the show premiered. But there’s an air of hopelessness that hangs over Who Is America? that takes the teeth out of watching Virginia Citizen’s Defense League President Philip Van Cleave jauntily sing, “Aim at the head, shoulders, not the toes, not the toes.”
Unfortunately, the segments of Who Is America? that aim more toward straight comedy than social surgery just aren’t funny enough to carry the show’s loftier goals. Much of it feels like underheated leftovers from Da Ali G Show, Cohen’s first foray into professional duping. The joke behind this show’s introduction to the Rick Sherman character is that the art is poop. Poop, semen, and blood. While poop isn’t not funny, here it feels like a premise practically designed to go nowhere, even when a California art gallery owner offers up a sample of her pubic hair as a cap-off to the bit. It’s one thing to watch a bunch of gun nuts embarrass themselves, another to see someone going too far out of niceness under the satirical eye of Cohen’s character.
Really, in the end, Who Is America? fails under the weight of a country quickly becoming bulletproof to satire or skewering. No matter what headlines might say, no late-night host or comedian in a wig is going to totally eviscerate Drumpf. If you didn’t already know Sarah Palin was an easy mark or Dick Cheney was a cartoon villain drawn by an artist with no sense of subtlety, congratulations on being the first human to successfully survive living under a rock. If you wanted to watch Bernie Sanders get vaguely old-man pissed and a little confused, you could have just watched any video of Bernie Sanders taken since the year 1980.
But if you’re looking for an actual answer to the question posed by the series’ title, the closest thing you’ll get actually comes during the poop segment; a canvas of shit and blood, painted by a criminal character who is told he’s a genius by a person unaware she’s been fooled.