Film

'Who Is America?' sees Sacha Baron Cohen become a troll fit for US politics

But with his one chance to hurt the US political elites, will Cohen's new comedy series hit the target?

Sacha Baron Cohen, Who Is America?

Who Is America? is not the first comedy show that attempts to hoist celebrities and politicians on their own idiocy. But Sacha Baron Cohen’s new seven-part series is the latest to employ the strategy, with the series setting its sights on modern, perhaps broken, America.

An easy target? Maybe. Yet comedy has struggled to find a way to land a blow against the political elites in the US in recent times. Cohen has form in this area. Da Ali G Show and Borat both used comedic characters to dupe real life subjects.

But the most clear precursor of Who Is America? is British series BrassEye, which gave us such hits as David Amess, a Conservative MP, going as far as to stand up in the House of Commons under the influence of Chris Morris to warn about the dangers of a “made-up drug” called Cake.

A bit of flattery, a few leading questions and away these idiots-for-hire go, high on their own self-importance

We also were treated to the strange sight of TV personality and radio DJ “Doctor” Neil Fox filming a public service announcement explaining that paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than humans.

A bit of flattery, a few leading questions and away these idiots-for-hire go, high on their own self-importance, spouting the most fatuous nonsense imaginable.

There is little original in the method employed by Sacha Baron Cohen in Who Is America?. But what of the substance?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtOts_9rHck

The absurd title sequence and use of prosthetics to create believable right-wing conspiracy theorist-cum-journalist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr, super-right-on PC liberal Nira Cain-N’Degocello, former prisoner and would-be artist Rick Sherman and manspreading Israeli terrorism tackler Erran Morad are nothing new.

However, when it is actual Republican Congressmen talking about giving three-year-old children training to use semi-automatic weapons and NRA-associated gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave taking part in a video to encourage young kids to shoot people – complete with guns dressed up as cuddly toys – it is truly frightening, if not entirely surprising.

The fear is that by creating fake news with real characters, Baron Cohen helps those wishing to blur the boundaries between truth and fiction

With the Saturday Night Live spoofs, in which Alec Baldwin lampoons Donald Trump, failing to land a blow either before or after his election, perhaps it was time for the not-so-new approach Cohen employs here.

Not everything he does in Who Is America? hits the mark. An art gallerist offering kind and encouraging words (and some freshly cut public hair) to Cohen’s ex-con persona, who paints in his own bodily fluids is likely to elicit more sympathy than ridicule. An obnoxious, degrading and unnecessary stunt whose target was neither famous nor dangerous.

But if each half-hour show has just one moment of magic, a set-up set piece that highlights the mania of the gun lobby, the racism of the Christian Right, or the cluelessness and lack of morals of some modern elected representatives then perhaps Cohen’s job is done.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime show. Emboldened by Trump, enjoying their moment in the spotlight, the groups Cohen targets hardest in Who Is America? were ripe for a comedic sting. But they will be on guard from now on.

And the fear is that by creating fake news with real characters, Cohen only helps those wishing to blur the boundaries between truth and fiction.

He had one shot, filming in great secrecy for the last year, with Sarah Palin among those to have been caught out. The opening episode shows promise. Here’s hoping Sacha Baron Cohen’s aim is true.

Image: Showtime

  • Who Is America? airs Monday nights on Channel 4 at 10pm, and is available via All4

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