Who Is America? is predictably alarming – and scarily relevant

by Diana Wichtel / 21 July, 2018
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Only Bernie Sanders comes out unscathed in Sacha Baron Cohen’s absurdist new series Who Is America?

Punk’d. It was a television series in which Ashton Kutcher orchestrated elaborate pranks aimed at celebrities. Kids’ stuff. Now, Sacha Baron Cohen has punked America in a series that sucked in senator Bernie Sanders, Sarah Palin, Trump supporters, gun activists … It’s called Who Is America? The answer to that question is predictably alarming.

There’s a long tradition of British presenters going to the US to be appalled on our behalf: Alan Whicker, Clive James, Louis Theroux … This is of a different order, as you’d expect from the creator of Ali G – “Is it because I is black?” – and Borat, idiotic reporter from the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, who once had the inmates of a Tucson bar singing along to a song with the catchy lyrics, “Throw the Jew down the well”.

So, we know what to expect. Sort of. Baron Cohen is now too famous to dust off Borat. He uses prosthetics to become a range of characters who look so startling and behave so preposterously that it’s a miracle his victims didn’t back out of the room whimpering at the sight of him. People want to be nice. So there’s Baron Cohen as an anti-Obamacare conspiracy nut, Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr, complaining to Bernie Sanders about his health woes: “Two types of diabetes, obese legs and chalky deposits.”

There’s liberal worst-case scenario Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello – “I’m a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologise.” Dr Nira seeks out a Trump-supporting couple “who suffer from white privilege”. The odd couple, in their grand home, win this round by being easily as weird as their visitor and blithely oblivious to his provocations.

There’s ex-con Rick Sherman, who paints with his own faeces. Laguna Beach art adviser Christy declares him a genius and gets over-involved in his process, generously donating some of her pubic hair. By that stage, you had to wonder about the pay-off from this scatological freak show.

Then the episode delivers, with Baron Cohen’s former Israeli army colonel Erran Morad, a startling, black-clad mountain of man-spreading testosterone. Just watching him strut like a boss through the streets is hilarious. He’s selling his solution to school shootings – the Kinderguardians programme that arms children. “We train them from age 16 to age three,” says a beaming Morad. That makes perfect sense to former congressman Joe Walsh. Baron Cohen gets Walsh to endorse a programme that “introduces specially selected children … to pistols, rifles, semi-automatics and a rudimentary knowledge of mortars”. In less than a month, he promises, “a first-grader can become a first grenade-er … Happy shooting, kids!”

Somehow, for the love of God, Morad gets his gun-loving victims to promote a range of cute kiddie weaponry. “Fill the Puppy Pistol by pushing his lunchbox into his belly and sending the naughty man for a really, really long timeout!”

Palin is unhappy about her experience. “Yup – we were duped. Ya got me, Sacha. Feel better now?” she blogged. I’m sure he does feel better. Should we? The concept is cruel, designed to make you feel uncomfortable on every level. But it’s also revealing. Given enough rope and a television camera, people show what they’re made of. Sanders comes out of it quite well. “Billy,” he says to his absurd visitor, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, I really don’t.” Correct answer, Bernie.

And you can’t have much sympathy for public figures in the world’s most powerful country who happily stare down the barrel of a camera and endorse arming toddlers. Baron Cohen offers a masterclass in nudging his victims along as they merrily motor to the logical destination of their own absurdly warped thinking. The scary thing, when you look around this crazy world, is that we can no longer say with any confidence, “Only in America”.

Who is America? Sky SoHo, Monday, 10.30pm.

This article was first published in the July 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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