Sacha Baron Cohen has a problem: his best tricks – assuming the persona of a wacky character to confuse unsuspecting interviewees, have self-limiting lifespans. If, as with Ali G, Borat and Bruno, they’re hits, they become useless, since there’s no longer anyone to fool. He can invent more characters, but he only has one actual (and now very familiar) human face, so his new show, “Who Is America?” sees him don some elaborate prosthetics to become a range of new characters, ostensibly to get the bottom of American identity in 2018.
The series gets off to a poor start, with Cohen as “Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D.”, an InfoWars-style conspiracy loon, interrogating progressive senator Bernie Sanders and attempting to demonstrate a new form of maths which proves that the 99 per cent can become the 1 per cent, or something. Sanders is patient, polite, refuses to rise to the fairly limp bait and just stays on message throughout – the best “Ruddick” gets out of him is an eventual “I don’t know what you’re talking about”. The character isn’t a particularly original or funny take on conspiracy theorist types, and nothing interesting happens, so what’s the point beyond saying that you “tricked” Bernie Sanders into wasting some time on you?
The next targets are slightly less of a PR coup: an apparently ordinary middle-class couple who back Trump. This time Baron Cohen plays an ultra-liberal NPR host who lets his menstruating daughter “freebleed” on to an American flag and has been cuckolded by a dolphin. But it slightly backfires as the nice, if politically misguided, couple patiently sit through their time being wasted for no readily apparent reason. There is, at least, a funny pay-off: all along there’s the vague sense that the husband is under orders from the wife to play nicely, which is confirmed when we see them being interviewed by a producer about their opinion of their guest’s unusual value system. Immediately she offers a polite “I don’t know”, but not in time to prevent her husband from giving his real opinion: “fucked up”.
Then there’s an art gallery owner, told she’s meeting a British ex-con turned artist – the gag is that he paints using poo and semen. She remains basically unflustered by this, even when he disappears into the toilet to produce a portrait of her. As with the Trump couple, her reactions – earnest and enthusiastic (to the point that she happily hands over some of her pubic hair) – to the baffling (and ostensibly literal) shit she’s presented with are much funnier than the grotesque she’s cheerfully putting up with. But it all feels slightly mean-spirited, like he’s sending people up for the crime of being nice.
More successful is the show’s conclusion, in which Baron Cohen attempts to get Republican congressmen to support a new classroom safety programme to arm 4-year-olds with guns. “Typically members of Congress don’t just hear a story about a programme whether they support it or not,” explains the first skeptical (but sensible) congressman. Inevitable cut to three who are more than happy to say what a brilliant idea it is. But it’s slightly muddled: he tricks his subjects into “elevated levels of the pheromone Blink-182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora” – is the joke – a la Brass Eye – that these are self-important idiots who’ll say anything if it means someone is paying attention to them? Or is it, more horrifyingly, that these guys genuinely believe arming preschoolers is a good idea?
Like so much of Who Is America?, it seems slightly at odds with itself – a fitting metaphor for the current state of the country, perhaps, but unsatisfying as a piece of television.