Who is America? review: Does Sacha Baron Cohen still have the power to shock? Hell, yeah…

In an America of Donald Trump and "fake news" this new comedy still manages to keep the audience guessing, but it misses some targets quite spectacularly, writes Ben Dowell

Sacha Baron Cohen in WHO IS AMERICA? - Photo: Gavin Bond/SHOWTIME

C4, TL

America is now a country where the current President is accused of mocking a disabled journalist during his campaign, was heard on tape boasting about grabbing women by the “pussy” and has for many months hotly contested allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia.

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So surely Sacha Baron Cohen, the man behind Ali G, Borat and Austrian fashion reporter Bruno Gehard, can’t really shock us any more?  Not with a fresh iteration on his stock-in-trade – inventing characters and showing up people willing to be interviewed by him?

Well, yes, he can. Certainly, in perhaps the most widely-trailed segment of the new show, which aired on US television a day before it was shown on Channel 4.

In the guise of an extraordinary-looking Israeli former commander, self-styled “terrorist terminator” Erran Morad, the British comic manages to dupe members of Congress and leading gun campaigners to back a drive to get children as young as four armed in school to kill the “bad guys”.

In scenes which caused my eyes to protrude on stalks, Philip Van Cleave, a well-know US gun lobbyist, even participated in a child-friendly promotional video for the Kinder-Guardians initiative in which children were shown how to use cute toys with pistols hidden inside. These “Gunny Rabbits” and “Uzicorns” would give the ‘bad guy’ attacking your school the displeasure of a “very long nap”.

Philip Van Cleave in a still from WHO IS AMERICA? (season 1, episode1) - Photo Credit: SHOWTIME
Philip Van Cleave in a still from WHO IS AMERICA? (season 1, episode1) – Photo Credit: SHOWTIME

While a Borat or an Ali G could elicit the occasional clunker, the shock value came because the world was different and political classes were perhaps more polished. Now populist movements are more powerful and the extraordinary freedom to speak seems telling and revelatory – even if the truths about some of them feel less surprising.

But don’t be fooled into believing that this is an exclusively liberal assault on the right wing in the US. Actually, it’s surprisingly even-handed, and one of the best new characters is Cohen’s uber liberal, an extraordinary looking fellow with a paunch and a pony tail determined to show his “white privilege” to the world, and which he does with a cosy dinner with two Trump activists from South Carolina.

At the dinner, he tells his patient hosts he was cuckolded by his wife’s lover – a dolphin – while on holiday and discusses home life in the family “yurt”. He then proceeds to explain how he makes his daughter Malala “urinate standing” up” while his son Harvey Milk is ordered to pee sitting down. This is enforced, he says, by “compliance cams” secreted in the bowl of the lavatory.

But what’s extraordinary is the way his hosts barely blink. Mrs Trump Supporter even admonishes her husband “don’t judge honey” when he moves to speak. And they even accept things when he tells them Malala is encouraged to sit on the US flag when she is having her period, using Ol’ Glory to mop up her menstrual blood to such a degree that it soon resembles “the flag of China”.

It was instructive see these Trump backers barely expressing any surprise or anger when presented with this kind of absurdity. What their mild-mannered tolerance offered was an intriguing sign of just what the US right think of what they regard as the demented left, a group keener on virtue-signalling absurd causes than actually doing anything meaningful. There’s division for you.

The other characters work less well. Bill Wayne Ruddick is Cohen in a fat suit on a mobility scooter who represents a fictious organisation called TruthLibray.org. In episode one he persuades left wing former Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders to give an interview.

But if anything, Sanders is simply bemused and polite, even when he is presented with some ridiculous statistics and canards against giving any tax dollars to poor people. Surely a politician has no option but to listen to members of the public, however crackpot. I wasn’t sure what was achieved here. It also reminded me of the time Cohen’s Ali G interviewed Tony Benn, with the late Labour MP actually getting the better of their exchanges with his refusal to accept Ali’s description of women as “bitches”.

The character that missed the mark most spectacularly, however, was a British violent ex con who has taken to producing art with his own bodily fluids.

He shows his work to a rather gentle Californian art curator called Christy Cones who is sweetly encouraging, even volunteering to snip off some of her own pubic hair to add to one of his brushes.

Wasn’t she just being nice, participating in an artistic endeavour in support of a fellow creative person? What was the point of humiliating her, except to show of the pretentions of the art world that we all know exist? Her rather lovely encouragement said nothing about the state of the America or the world, just that some people are happy to praise terrible art in order to save someone’s feelings. I do it with my six-year-old daughter virtually every day (and I hope she’s not reading this).

No, this comedy is on much surer ground when it aims higher, targets the powerful and exposes the extremes and divides of current US politics, right and left. That’s where it can be really shocking. And with the likes of Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney set to feature in upcoming episodes, let’s hope he continues to do just that.

Bernie Sanders in a still from WHO IS AMERICA? (season 1, episode1) - Photo Credit: SHOWTIME
Bernie Sanders in a still from WHO IS AMERICA? (season 1, episode1) – Photo Credit: SHOWTIME
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Who is America? will continue on Channel 4