When David Nevins called Sacha Baron Cohen “the premier provocateur of our time” in announcing the new Who Is America? series, the Showtime boss was certainly honest to a fault. Full of mild shock, zero awe and a lot of recycled scenarios, the flabby, seven-episode dupe-the-dimwits endeavor from the once blighting satirist certainly provokes a great inducement to change the cable channel.
Or to paraphrase a true great provocateur, Johnny Rotten: Boring, Sasha, boring
Debuting tonight on streaming, online, and On Demand – and on Showtime proper tomorrow at 7 PM PT – the spoof series starts off with a quickly irritated Sen. Bernie Sanders being mildly grilled by a prosthetically enhanced Cohen, who is not that well-disguised as motorized scooter-bound, Alex Jones wannabe Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. of Truthbrary.org.
Though Ali G was genius and Borat was brilliant, the subsequent offerings leading to Who Is America? intimate that the decline and fall of the comedy of Sasha Baron Cohen is almost complete with this pointless and tub-thumping exercise in ritual humiliation.
About as “dangerous” and “cold-blooded,” to quote WiA’s promos, as a multi-colored inflatable pool unicorn, this series is murky on who is being more humiliated, Cohen or his patsies. It is, however, definitive on giving 2016 flick The Brothers Grimsby a worthy rival for the stupidest thing Cohen has ever conceived.
Look, from about 2000 to 2006, I thought Cohen was one of the shrewdest and most side-splitting people on the planet. He entangled the privileged and the powerful in their own ignorance, time and time again, first as the simple-minded, Staines-representing hip hop fanatic on Da Ali G Show, then as a clueless Kazakh TV host. Yet mining the same material and approach over and over between roles in the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and the Alice In Wonderland sequel seriously watered down the whiskey, so to speak.
Now, with the exception of a vey well placed Cardi B reference and a few other moments in WiA, there just isn’t much of the good stuff left.
From Sarah Palin to Ted Koppel to failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and more, a number of potential Who Is America? targets have been spewed out in recent days. Some of those Cohen tried to pillory have clearly never met a camera or a free flight that they didn’t like, particularly Palin, the 2008 GOP Vice-Presidential hopeful and sometimes-unscripted TV host. That’s not to mention the short-term renewal of their expired 15-minutes of fame that a little feigned outrage can stir up.
Others, like former Veep Dick Cheney, who appears in promos for the show signing his John Hancock to a waterboarding kit that Cohen’s torture and gun-loving self-professing ex-Mossad member persona hands him, seem to have stubbornly strolled into the show’s excruciating leg-hold trap.
However, for the most part, Cohen targets an easily pummeled straw dogs selection of well-heeled, Donald Trump- supporting and drink-sipping South Carolinians, gun rights activists like the well-named Larry Pratt, and pliable SoCal art gallery owners. There’s also the expected washed-up politicians, talking heads, and reality show contestants with defecation gags galore, a “Kinder-Guardians” gun-arming child program, sex with a porpoise and a flag menstruation anecdote, the latter which the Clinton Foundation are falsely said to be supporting financially.
Added together, all this finds former clown student Cohen and the numerous characters he’s created for Who Is America? slithering further and further down the cultural drainpipe. It might be shielded under the tattered guise of exploring the American divide, and it might therefore appeal to some as funny. Also, accepting that there is at least one mark born every minute, as con-men say, it might entice others as a necessary shiv to whomever they don’t like on the political spectrum.
The fact is, Cohen shares with President Trump the ability to sucker Sarah Palin, and, like the former Celebrity Apprentice host, is all about playing entirely to his base. Which means the shtick of Who Is America? is simply to watch stuffed shirts fall over on the banana peels placed in their self-satisfied way, again and again. Nothing more, and often less.
Funny once? Totally. Funny over and over and over? Maybe, if the executions are worthy and the subjects slippery enough, as was often the case during Cohen’s Ali G and Borat era.
However, funny in 2018? When trolled by the Cohen-played characters of a right-wing conspiracy theorist, Mossad officer, a self-loathing, gender-bending, NPR-listening snowflake? Or what about a British convict just out of the joint wanting to share his bodily fluids-created art and apparent impersonation of Tom Hardy as Bronson from the 2008 pic, plus an oil-slick slimy West Coast Euro-millionaire celeb photographer with charitable desires?
No, that’s not funny or shrewd. That’s just a short play at the track, as con-men used to say. And, once you get past the sleight-of-hand and the hype, there’s not much there in Who Is America?, new or otherwise, that isn’t a con job.