Who is America: Laugh, Cry, Cringe?

The final episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America aired this past Sunday on Showtime. On July 4th, 2018, Cohen tweeted a cryptic message which turned out to be the seven-episode limited series. The provocateur supreme released the first episode on July 15th, and the world watched in a mix of horror, glee, and disgust for seven weeks as Cohen aimed to define who America really is. Naturally, I wanted to review the first episode upon watching it but thought it would be better suited to review the series holistically.

Who is America Anyway?

The Premise

Showtime’s premise of the show seems innocent enough: “the seven-episode series explores the diverse individuals who populate our unique nation, and features Baron Cohen experimenting in the playground of 2018 America.” Innocence does not go hand in hand with Cohen, a master of guerilla-style comedy.

Since the announcement of the series, people feared the worst. Former Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin was enraged that she had been pranked by Cohen, although this segment never aired. Palin’s response came a few days before the series’ premiere, as did responses from former U.S. Congressman Joe Walsh, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Alabama judge Roy Moore, and journalist Ted Koppel. These revelations only excited people to see what Cohen had in store for his victims.

Throughout the series, Cohen introduced various characters with intricate backgrounds to find out who is America:

  • Dr. Bill Wayne Ruddick, Ph.D.-  A far-right conspiracy theorist who publishes his interviews on Truthbrary.org.
  • Col. Erran Morad- A former member of the Mossad and former member of the Israeli military. Morad acts as an anti-Islamic terror specialist throughout the series.
  • Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello: A far-left activist seeking to “heal the divide through America’s fractured consciousness.”
  • Gio Monaldo- An Italian billionaire playboy/fashion photographer.  
  • Rick Sherman- An ex-convict from Britain who tries to release his various forms of artwork through the mediums of paintings, music, and culinary arts.
  • OMGWhizzBoyOMG!- An eccentric Finnish YouTuber who hosts guests on his unboxing channel.

Each of these characters set up interviews with various high-profile individuals and people of the general public. Cohen is able to set up big-name interviews through various means, and he pranks the likes of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice-President Dick Cheney.

By now the general public has watched in awe as Cohen, disguised as Col. Morad, dupes gun activists into endorsing a “Kinder-Guardians” program which seeks to arm “specially gifted and trained” toddlers in the hopes of defending their classmates in a school shooting. Dr. Ruddick peddles legitimate conspiracy theories to left-wing pundits and politicians such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Dr. Jill Stein. Rick Sherman tests the lengths of art critics by providing absurd artwork, such as art made from bodily fluid and serving “prison inspired” dishes such as human meat; similarly, Gio Monaldo tests the limit people will go in order to be famous or make a sale. OMGWhizzBoyOMG has gun activists explain gun rights to unboxed toys, and Dr. Nira Cain tries to “heal the divide with racist Trump voters” (the irony of that statement is not lost upon this writer) by challenging these people with inflammatory logic.

Honestly, it’s odd to write down all of these absurd shenanigans, but it’s even more absurd to watch them play out. But herein lies the genius of Cohen; this show is birthed out of a politically divided America.

Why is America (Like This)?

In late Arizona Sen. John McCain’s posthumous remarks to citizens of the United States, he states “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.” These tribal rivalries, both on the left and the right, are exactly the type of fodder ripe for satire, and Cohen masterfully exploits that. The contentious 2016 presidential election polarized the American people, and it’s no secret the current administration’s actions continue to sow that divide. Fair or unfair, the current climate can be summarized as you’re with Trump or you’re against him, with a seemingly nonexistent middle ground.

In the season finale, Col. Morad devises a plan to infiltrate a women’s march in order to stop the organization Anti-fa. Once again, he “trains” three participants how to “act like a liberal” so they can blend in. After he chooses one of the men to be his partner, they pose as a lesbian couple and interview protesters in order to find their target and place “trackers” on the backs of three protesters. Morad informs his partner that the trackers serve as detonators as well in order to kill the Anti-fa members. While the detonators are obviously fake, Morad’s partner ultimately decides to “detonate” the device and the man believes he killed someone (a liberal) for the betterment of America.  

While there were absurd segments in regards to the arts, or Dr. Nira Cain simulating birth to better understand the plight of a pregnant woman, the political segments are particularly telling of the current climate. And I’m not talking about Dick Cheney signing a waterboarding kit or even of some congressmen promoting the “Kinder-Guardian” program. I was specifically shocked by the levels of racism expressed by some of those pranked.

By now, most of us have seen the footage of former Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer bare his ass and scream the n-word (without hesitation) while “training” to fight terrorism or his post-credit appearance warning Muslim people that he’ll cut off their genitals (again using the n-word without hesitation).

But what about Dr. Nira Cain’s town hall segment with members of Kingsman, Arizona, in which he proposes a financial investment to build a mosque in the city? During that segment, citizens were in an uproar at the idea of a mosque being built in their city. As Dr. Nira Cain continued to push and prod, one citizen proudly stated he’s “racist towards Muslims” and another citizen proclaimed that “black people are lucky to be in Kingsman” as they are “tolerated” there, but not accepted.

And how can we forget about the three Trump voters recruited by Col. Moran to capture illegal immigrants crossing the border? During this segment, the three goons believed that quinceaneras are a Mexican tradition disguised to rape underage girls.

These segments blurred comedy with the absurd but revealed a terrible truth about America: there are still people in this country who are unapologetically racist, some of them prominent and some of them just ordinary citizens. While America can be defined by the many decent, hardworking people of diverse backgrounds, we can also be defined by the worst some of our citizens have to offer.

What This Does for Political Discourse

The short answer is Who is America does absolutely nothing for political discourse. While we were watching episode three, my wife turned to me and mentioned these could easily turn around and embarrass Democrats and hardcore liberals. Of course, this is true; I’m sure Cohen could have easily pranked those on the far-left, but Cohen obviously had an agenda. This agenda is blatant through the opening sequence of the show as Cohen juxtaposes great presidential quotes with Trump mocking a mentally handicapped reporter.

From the beginning, it’s clear this show is not meant to appeal to Trump supporters, nor is it to further political discourse. And let’s be real for a second: anybody who expected meaningful political discourse from Cohen is obviously not familiar for his work. So while this doesn’t do much for discourse, the point of good satire is to expose the absurdities society faces and deal with those absurdities head on.  

Last Word on Who is America

Cohen’s Who is America is as divisive as the current political climate in America. The singular, seven-episode series will be hilarious to some, make others uncomfortable, and surely make some enemies for Cohen. However, it’s relevance as a snapshot of the worst of America is an invaluable insight into some real, ridiculous thoughts many people in this country may hold.

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