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‘Who is America?’ – mid-season analysis

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen made his return to television after more than a decade of engaging with the medium with his new controversial political satire Who Is America? (Showtime) in which he stars as various characters. Cohen poses as four new egos to explore the diverse make-up of the USA through meeting, interviewing, and interacting with a range of individuals ranging from unknown townsfolk through to figures across the political and cultural spectrum.

Cohen goes back to his roots which he laid out in Da Ali G Show, in which he interacted with real people who were unaware that it was the comedian himself. The six personas explored throughout the series thus far come across as a lot more human than the three characters from Da Ali G Show (all of which later appeared in feature films). All characters depicted thus far take a more human form, with the sarcasm and satire flowing more naturally from themselves. It is less exaggerated than Ali G, Borat, and Bruno who were more obvious with their satire.

All characters depicted thus far take a more human form, with the sarcasm and satire flowing more naturally

In a US where the political and cultural climate is almost a parody of itself, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? is already the cause of a lot of controversy. Since its release, the series has been generating a flood of media attention for multiple reasons ranging from issues regarding the ethics behind putting his Dick Cheney-signed waterboard kit on eBay to political resignations. Several of the politicians who interacted with one of Baron Cohen’s characters have jumped the gun and condemned his interview ethics and techniques.

In a world of whataboutism, there has been controversy on whether Cohen has gone too low, completely deflecting from those who unknowingly and subconsciously went lower. Cohen’s billionaire playboy persona, Gio Monaldo, pranked US reality TV star Corinne Olympios (The Bachelor), having her fabricate a story regarding her doing charity work in Sierra Leone to fight Ebola and save 6,000 people from being slaughtered by a Warlord whilst she posed in a hazmat suit in front of a green screen to be Photoshopped into a real photo of charity work done during the Ebola crisis. Cohen has long expressed contempt for fame-hungry individuals desperate for media exposure, and it seems Corinne would pretty much read anything of a teleprompter for this exposure, advocating for a campaign to better equip child soldiers. Nevertheless, Cohen and his production team came under scrutiny for their interviewing etiquette and trickery – moving far from the focus of the series.

There has been controversy on whether Cohen has gone too low

Absurdity is a key trope in the humour that runs throughout the series, convincing people to want to do things that are not considered conventionally necessary or normal – and at moments it makes me wonder how he managed to do this and how these people are in a position of power. Cohen managed to get senior (Republican) politicians to advocate for arming 3-year olds with guns, an art dealer to gift him their pubic hair, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio – the first person to receive a pardon from President Trump –  to say he would accept receiving oral sex from Donald Trump.

The series does an amazing job at criticising and questioning the integrity of US politicians in a manner that the news simply cannot do. One of the most terrifying, powerful and gravely absurd moments of the series thus far involved Jason Spencer, a Republican state representative for Georgia, who is duped by Cohen’s Israeli ex-military persona Erran Morad, who used to be part of the Mossad. Morad manages to fool Spencer into revealing his ignorance and lack of integrity. Spencer imitates a Chinese tourist in an incredibly racist fashion, screams the n-word repeatedly, and gets his bare buttocks out on television to defend ‘Murica and repel terrorists. Spencer became the show’s first real victim; two days after the episode originally aired, it was announced that Spencer would resign from office effective immediately despite his claims that he was not going to resign. The series does a great job at mocking Republicans whilst also taking jabs at Democrats and the absurdities of liberal US Culture.

Morad consistently hits comedy gold whilst exposing the ignorance and prejudice of some in the United States. Morad’s interview with former US Vice President Dick Cheney writes itself through Cheney’s obliviousness to the sarcasm and irony in question, particularly with comments regarding his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan which he was particularly proud of – such as killing 100,000 terrorists and 700,000 civilians who were ‘potential terrorists’. The interview ends with Cheney signing Morad’s waterboarding kit, which ended up on eBay but was eventually taken down due to the unusually high bidding price for a new seller.

Cohen’s Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a liberal and Democrat who attempts to ‘heal the divide’ in the US, often gets into situations which involve antagonising and infuriating those he interacts with. In the second episode he ventures into the town of Kingman, Arizona, baiting local residents into revealing their beliefs when he offers a proposal to build a state of the art mosque, the largest outside of the Middle-East, leading some residents to saying that they are racist, associate mosques with terrorism, dislike Muslims, hope to burn the mosque down, and that ‘black people aren’t welcome’ or wanted but they are tolerated. This sparked the reaction of other members of the town to state that they are not uniformly racist.

The series is horrifying funny and absurd at the moment you realise that these are real people

At moments the delivery, humour, and believability are more of a miss than a hit, with the character and gags of Billy Wayne Ruddict Jr., a far-right conspiracy theorist and citizen journalist, being transparent in the first two episodes, including an interview with Bernie Sanders, junior US Senator for Vermont who ran to be the Democratic nominee for president in the 2016 election. While the attempt to make both sides of the political spectrum look ridiculous has been branded as nihilism, it is fairer to say that this choice gives equal balance and highlights the absurdity running throughout US politics.

The series is horrifying funny and absurd at the moment you realise that these are real people, many in positions of power, in unknowing circumstances where they can be duped into revealing their beliefs and prejudices which are not depicted in the mainstream media, and it makes for powerful viewing. Cohen’s method of social criticism is refreshing and unique, making for great but at times uncomfortable viewing. There are moments throughout the series that are incredibly harrowing and at times the material depicted is too frightening to be conventionally funny.

We are only halfway through the series, and I look forward to seeing what it will bring in the latter half and who will be the next victim of Cohen’s gags. The controversy and offensive humour attached to the show are really devices to depict the diverse and absurd make-up of the US, and the results and great viewing allow these devices to be overlooked.

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