Television Review: “Who Is America?”

(Photo: Showtime)

Sacha Baron Cohen returns with the interview-style, impersonation comedy, made famous by the socially extreme, satirical characters he portrays, such as Ali G, Borat, and Bruno.  In this series, he plays four new characters, all of which resemble a contemporary American ideology, which has been exaggerated to its most absurdly logical conclusion.

Like any prank show, the real entertainment comes from the response elicited by the prankster; as in, how far can a persona manipulate this unsuspecting person into saying or doing something they normally wouldn’t.  For this to work, the viewer’s suspense of disbelief is reliant upon Cohen’s target to fully believe that his persona is real.  I personally had a hard time believing that Bernie didn’t know it was some kind of prank show, which deflates the humor to a degree, because it’s less funny when someone knows they’re being pranked.  But for the most part, Cohen is able to maintain the illusion of sincerity and improvise, based on the interviewee’s response, to the scene’s maximum potential.  His greatest success in this matter is getting Republican politicians to publicly support training four-year-olds to use firearms against mass shooters in schools.

By honestly addressing society as personified extremity, Cohen reveals the satire that sits on the surface of what is considered “normal” political discourse.  In the Trump era, when politicians lie and spout Orwellian propaganda, many comedians have pointed out that it’s hard to make fun of these people when they are basically walking self-parodies.  Cohen doesn’t attempt to make fun of anyone; instead he allows his absurdity to reveal the absurdity in others; to expose them for the self-parodies that they are.

Anyone who is a fan of impressions should find something to love in Cohen’s performance.  His characters are believable because he doesn’t just perform them, he lives through them; his walk changes, the way he carries himself changes, his speech patterns change – he really is the master of disguise (despite the fact that the make-up is a little over-done at times).  His absurd characters work because he plays them with deft honesty.  He doesn’t just play an absurd point of view, instead he fully embodies the kind of person who would house such thoughts.

There is definitely a lot of potential to be squeezed from these four new characters, and I’m on board for the ride to see how far Cohen can take this, given how uniquely ridiculous he is willing to go.  However, now that people know of the kind of pranks he is pulling off, I wonder how successful he will be in the future in continuing to fool people of power.  His ability to get genuinely surprised and outrageous reactions in this manner may have a shelf life.


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