Who Is America? review: Sacha Baron Cohen salvages satire - it's devastating, gobsmacking stuff
It turns out satire is not dead after all, it has just been having a lie-down for the past 18 months, recharging its batteries and trying to figure out how to get a handle on a much-changed world.
Well, it’s back now, and back with a vengeance, in the guise – or rather the many guises – of Sacha Baron Cohen, whose new series, Who is America?, went out across all of US cable channel Showtime’s platforms yesterday and begins on Channel 4 tonight.
Aside from a brief teaser clip of Dick Cheyney enthusiastically signing “a waterboarding kit”, the show has been shrouded in secrecy, until one of Baron Cohen’s other marks, the idiot Sarah Palin, helpfully took to Facebook to share the news that she’d been “duped” into an interview.
It gradually trickled out that Baron Cohen’s other dupes include disgraced Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, disgraced Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and veteran broadcaster Ted Koppel.
None of those turn up in tonight’s first instalment of Who is America?, which features Baron Cohen, unrecognisable beneath heavy prosthetics, playing different characters, but Bernie Sanders does, answering the idiotic questions of Baron Cohen as Billy Ray Ruddick Jr, editor of a right-wing “truther” website. Sanders is too smart to take the bait. The skit doesn’t really go anywhere and makes for a flat start.
Baron Cohen seems to be indulging his gross-out side as Dr Nira Cain-N’degeocello, a bleeding heart liberal who sits down for dinner at the lavish home of a rich, middle- aged, Trump-supporting couple who “suffer from white privilege”.
To their mounting disquiet, he tells them how gender boundaries are not allowed in his household: his son, he says, has to pee sitting down, his daughter standing up.
There are some laughs here, but by the time the character gets on to how his menstruating daughter “free-bleeds” over the American flag (it’s a way of educating her in the bloody history of America’s roots), it’s beginning to feel like pushing the envelope for the sake of it.
The segment where convict- turned-artist Rick Sherman tries to persuade a trendy East Coast gallery owner to hang the pictures he’s painted with his bodily fluids feels unpleasantly like Baron Cohen is punching down rather than up.
However, if the first half of the show is middling, the second, featuring Baron Cohen as self-styled anti-terror expert Errin Morad (“the Terrorism Terminator”) really delivers the goods.
Morad is supposedly trying to win support for an initiative called “Kinder Guardians”, aimed at teaching children as young as four to use guns. He persuades Virginia Defence League luminary Philip Van Cleave to appear in a cheery video advertising a range of children’s guns concealed inside cuddly toys.
Another pro-gun lobby clown, the aptly-named Larry Pratt of the Gun Owners of America, who thinks toddlers with guns is a wonderful idea, reads from a pre-prepared script about how “science has proven” that toddlers process images 80pc faster than adults.
“Essentially, like owls, they can see in slow motion. Children under five also have elevated levels of the pheromone Blink 182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora.”
On Capitol Hill, Morad persuades a number of high-profile Republicans to support his arm-the-toddlers plan – straight to camera.
“A three-year-old cannot defend itself from an assault rifle by throwing a Hello Kitty pencil case at it,,” says South Carolina representative Joe Wilson.
Ex-Republican congressman-turned-radio host Joe Walsh also throws his weight behind Morad. “In less than a month,” he says, “a first-grader can become a first-grenader. Happy shooting, kids!”
It’s devastating, gobsmacking stuff that, in a normal era, would sink a political career, but this is not a normal era, which is why we need Sacha Baron Cohen more than ever.
WHO IS AMERICA? Channel 4, tonight, 10pm