Sacha Baron Cohen, a fading performer in desperate need of a hit, is probably on his way to producing yet another flop if the mixed-to-bad reviews around his new Showtime series, Who Is America?, are an indicator.
What is truly bad news for Cohen is that he is receiving mostly unfavorable reviews, even though his nastiest comedic bits are aimed at those the entertainment media hate the most — people on the right.
From the sounds of it, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) was a Cohen target, but Cohen did not set out to embarrass Sanders, did not push to see how far Sanders would take his socialist ideology, which is what he does to his targets on the right. Instead, Cohen just spoke a lot of nonsense to Sanders while disguised as an Alex Jones-type character.
When it comes to targets on the right, Cohen’s approach is completely different. He seeks to manipulate and selectively edit them into looking like extremists and bigots. A sacred left-wing cow like Sanders, though, is just targeted to be made uncomfortable. Or as one reviewer put it, Cohen is “intent on getting liberals to fight with him until they get frustrated enough to give up and conservatives to eagerly join him and follow him over a cliff.”
Despite these very, very different and partisan approaches, Cohen still tries to pass himself off as an equal opportunity offender, which is nothing less than his own form of extremist propaganda.
According to the reviews, Cohen also seeks to humiliate everyday people, including a left-wing art gallery owner and a group of Trump supporters. This is not comedy, it is bullying.
It is one thing for a late night comedian like a Jimmy Kimmel or Jay Leno to clearly identify themselves in man-on-the-street interviews where we all get a good-natured laugh at those who, for example, do not know who the current vice president is. But when a powerful Hollywood multi-millionaire like Cohen, a man backed by a multi-national company like Viacom, attempts to humiliate everyday unsuspecting people, that is beyond the pale.
It was also the reason I hated Cohen’s 2006 Borat and why, I think, Sacha Baron Cohen has not had a hit in a dozen years.
Nevertheless, despite doing his best to resurrect his flailing career with this desperate and painfully obvious attempt to appeal to the Hollywood bubble, most reviewers are still not amused. And when you work this hard to tickle Hollywood’s bigoted sweet spot and still get shot down, your product must really stink.
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.
Or to paraphrase a true great provocateur, Johnny Rotten: Boring, Sasha, boring.
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.
That segment feels a bit like an especially half-baked sort of equal time, working to ensure that the show “feels fair” by pranking the left and right evenly even when the material isn’t quite there. Same with an overlong segment confronting an evidently liberal-minded California gallerist with the artwork Baron Cohen’s ex-con character made out of bodily fluids. The gross-out gag strains patience and credulity, though its point—that liberal folk are forgiving beyond reason—comes through loud and clear.
The gallerist segment, or another in which a liberal Baron Cohen character berates conservative South Carolinians with the details of his wife’s practice of bestiality, were oddly more engaging than the thought of a much-publicized segment, to come in the show’s future, with Sarah Palin … In both, Baron Cohen is not exactly successful in two ways; his routine grows tiresome long before the sketch has ended, and he also fails to get what it sometimes seems he wants above all else, the violent reaction, the confrontation that ends in tears or blood.
I’m not skeptical of Cohen’s gifts as a sketch comic. Each of the characters arrives accompanied by an initial wave of amusement and several are good for a couple chuckles. Not one of the characters gets better with additional screen time and not one of the characters gets funnier based on spontaneous interaction with Cohen’s targets. I laughed several times at Who Is America? and each of my laughs was based on something carefully scripted either that Cohen did or that he got a subject to read.
Showtime would like as few details about the series revealed as possible and to keep them restricted to the first episode, that starts with the right-wing conspiracy theorist talking to Bernie Sanders. The white-haired paragon of the far left sets what will be a template for Cohen’s early approach, which is intent on getting liberals to fight with him until they get frustrated enough to give up and conservatives to eagerly join him and follow him over a cliff. I guess that approach also should also hint at the answer to the show’s titular query.
Though Sanders is the biggest name in the first episode, his segment stops well before either he or Cohen do anything interesting.