Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show Who is America? is many things: awkward, funny, clever, dumb, ridiculous, partisan, and mostly, controversial. I have watched all four episodes and still don’t know if the show is good or bad, real or embellished, fair or not, but I know it is a show we need, and a show that should exist.
Who is America?, which airs on Showtime, may be asking a fundamental question in its essence, or it may just be overzealous marketing, as Cohen tries to embarrass and humiliate public figures like former Vice President Dick Cheney, Corinne Olympios from The Bachelor, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, among others. To be honest, I don’t really care what Who is America? means—I’ll leave that to thinkpiece bloviators. To me, Who is America? is important because it is doing something that hasn’t been possible in the Trump era.
Through direct and indirect manipulation, Cohen allows people to publicly shame themselves, using their own words and actions. And while it can get pretty ugly and vindictive, he just lays the traps while ultimately his targets rat themselves out.
Cohen isn’t forcing anyone to say or do anything, whether it’s lying about charity work, filming a fake PSA marketing automatic weapons for children, or screaming the N-word aloud to try to intimidate a potential terrorist. And those gags are only the ones that made front page headlines! Cohen has also spoken to a room of Arizonans who openly tell him they don’t want Muslims or African-Americans in their neighborhood, had congressmen endorse inane gun laws, and tricked Dick Cheney into autographing a “waterboard kit.”
The results of Cohen’s exploits are tangible. Assemblyman Jason Spencer, a Georgia Republican, resigned after the aforementioned N-word incident was televised. This is the same government employee who faced no repercussions after threatening that a woman could face mob violence or go missing, simply for her expressing support for tearing down Confederate statues.
In a time and place where there is so much divisive spin on both sides, maybe being caught up by your own words is the best play. Sometimes it works, and other times it doesn’t. For example listening to disgraced and presidentially pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio respond affirmatively to a question about whether he would take a blow job from Donald Trump, is funny but insignificant, because he doesn’t understand what he is saying. But hearing a Virginian gun lobbyist explain, “…children haven’t quite developed what we call conscience, where you feel guilty about doing something wrong. That’s developing. You’re learning right and wrong. If they haven’t developed that yet, they can be very effective soldiers,” is enough to make you scream. That man, Philip Van Cleave, is the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, an organization that has donated almost $100,000 to political parties in the last 20 years. If Cohen is diminishing Van Cleave’s clout, again, that’s a net positive.
Contrast the outcomes of Who is America? with the Democrat’s strategy of “when they go low, we go high.”. Take, for example, when CNN hosted a town hall forum between student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, local politicians, and NRA spokespeople. By the end of the evening, no one took responsibility, no one was held accountable, and NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch turned into a celebrity villain with an even greater platform.
Which makes Cohen’s simplest gags, cheap as they may be, successful too. Getting Roy Moore to walk out of an interview after he set off a “pedophile detector” or getting a Trump delegate to dress in an Aladdin costume to play a terrorist are laughs worth having. Shame may be a slippery slope, but it is also an effective tool.
Not all of Cohen’s bits end up in humiliation, though. In Episode 1, a conservative couple does not bite on Cohen’s hyper-liberal bait, and instead come across as pleasant people willing to listen to an opponent. Bernie Sanders, Ted Koppel, and Florida Republican representative Matt Gaetz are shown being especially guarded, recognizing the ridiculousness of their interviews, shutting down the questioning, and letting decency be their guide.
It is fair to question the tactics Cohen and his team are using, since we are seeing a heavily edited television show. Perhaps they will let us behind the scenes eventually, as subjects increasingly claim they were victims of duping and exploitation.
I am not sure if the show would rather its audience learn, laugh, cringe, or shout, but through four episodes it has been effective at evoking the gamut of emotions. Who knows whether we will learn who, exactly, is America, or whether it will be revealed as little more than a cable television circus? Who knows whether Cohen’s shenanigans will keep dethroning deplorables, or maybe they will end up being irrelevant lessons in common sense? Maybe no one knows.
But what I do know is I will be watching with bated breath.