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Sacha Baron Cohen's 'Who Is America?' hit some easy targets but often misses the mark

The costumed comedian treads some familiar turf in his new outing on Showtime, for better and for worse.
Presenter Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the 88th Academy Awards in Hollywood
Sacha Baron Cohen arrives at the Academy Awards in 2016.Adrees Latif / Reuters file

There is a moment in Sacha Baron Cohen's "Who Is America?" during which a viewer will have no idea where he's going with his gag. Cohen, in the guise of NPR-shirt-clad liberal Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, excitedly tells Jane Page Thompson about how his daughter free-bleeds onto an American flag during menstruation, before segueing into the difficulties he had with his wife taking a dolphin lover. He mentions thinking about moving to a landlocked state.

"Oh, get her away from the sea!" says the South Carolina delegate who nominated Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, trying to offer a solution to her guest's credulity-straining problem. It is by far the most sympathetic moment of the episode — serving to humanize Cohen's target, rather than making her a joke.

Cohen and his fans return to familiar territory in "Who Is America?": Costumes, accents and prosthetics are used to assemble reliably provocative fake personalities under whose guise Cohen can tweak the famous and powerful. The four avatars who lead us into the heart of America in episode one are the aforementioned Cain-N'Degeocello, doofus and Trump fan Billy Wayne Ruddick, bodily fluid artist and ex-con Rick Sherman and Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terrorism expert who seems like the token insane person from an 8:00 a.m. "Headshotting Islamofascism" panel at a conservative conference.

The show also reprises some of Cohen's least appealing tics.

Morad's segment is the best of the episode, because he persuades American gun rights advocate Philip Van Cleave to help him make an instructional video for children ages three and up about how to handle and fire a stuffed animal puppy pistol, a unicorn Uzi and, of course, the Dino-Gun, a gas operated 7.62x51mm NATO belt-fed machine gun that can fire 850 rounds per minute. The segment ends with current and former Republican leaders Trent Lott, R-Miss., Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., Joe Wilson, R-S.C., Joe Walsh, R-Ill. and Larry Pratt, the executive director emeritus of the Gun Owners of America mindlessly reading promotional copy for the Kinder-Guardians program.

But the show also reprises some of Cohen's least appealing tics. The middle of the episode sags, for instance, under the dead weight of Sherman showing his feces-and-semen portraits to a "fine art consultant" at the Coast Gallery named Christy. Watching a woman politely verbally negotiating the uncomfortably small distance between herself and a man who just returned from the toilet after crafting a body fluid portrait of her has a more clear resonance in 2018 than perhaps it used to for some fans.

Outside of moments like those (and his continuing fascination with male rape riffs, which remain a weak comedy/awareness twofer), Cohen is hilarious enough that he doesn't really need a big idea for the show to coalesce around — and that's probably for the best, because it's hard to tell what big idea would fit. The show lampoons the big graphics and pointless interviews that are ubiquitous on everything from "The Daily Show" to CNN (and have previously been parodied on "Brass Eye" and "The Day Today") but if there's a larger message in reprising the often-parodied, it's not clear.

Cohen is hilarious enough that he doesn't really need a big idea for the show to coalesce around.

That everything Cohen does in these shows is essentially a put-on has always had the effect of forcing the audience to sympathize with his targets. The most human moments all belong to people who, to varying degrees, are being unwittingly exploited by gags arranged in such a way as to force them to cough up comic or provocative behavior. This is what makes the episode's ending so comedically pure: It takes little effort to get gun-stroking merchants of death to sell crazy for the product they've already sold their souls for.

But, while Billy Wayne Ruddick is supposed to be MAGA-brained stupid to push Sen. Bernie Sanders past even his trademarked exasperation and into something memorably hortatory, the best moments of his segment are Sanders shooting incredulous glances at the camera. Rick Sherman is introduced as an ex-con who has spent insanity-inducing amounts of time in solitary, but his utility as an agent of discomfort for an art dealer is almost wholly immaterial to his stated background — though it's widely known that tens of thousands of incarcerated people spend months or years in solitary confinement to the detriment of their mental health, which adds more pressure on the art dealer to be polite about his unsettling painting.

Cain-N'Degeocello's segment had the potential to be a ripe satire about legacy media's insistence on understanding America by going on yokel-safari to meet economically anxious real Americans. The fact that Cohen then sits down to dinner with the actual base of Donald Trump's support — affluent white suburbanites and not coal-choked diner patrons — would seem to add to the appeal, but instead the segment becomes a vector for the hectoring liberal to reveal that he is more unappealing than the people he's shaming. Whatever point there might have been gets grossed out of the picture, and while the "menstrual flag program" gag is genius (that whole segment is just a glorious string of words), it's easy to feel like you're listening to merely a more-woke poop joke.

The segment becomes a vector for the hectoring liberal to reveal that he is more unappealing than the people he's shaming.

As Cain-N'Degeocello, Cohen pushes Jane Page Thompson and Mark Thompson every which way to elicit some sort of provocative reaction: He tells them about putting cameras in his bathrooms to make sure his kids are peeing according to reversed gender roles, in addition to the menstruation bit, and about being cuckolded by a dolphin. In response, the Thompsons try to help his character.

There's no yelling; there are no denunciations. The Thompsons ask sincere questions and try to figure out what the heck is going on in his life and spitball the best they can. Jane Page Thompson is the picture of the white Southern woman who will treat you well so long as you are under her own roof, because she invited you — which, after the Borat movie, shouldn't have come as a surprise to Cohen.

But maybe this is who America is. Stripped of avatars and other guises for dehumanizing the opponent — all those little tricks that convince us that the mean things we want to say are okay, because there isn't a real person hearing them — and stuck sitting face-to-face and across a table, where the effects we have on each other can no longer be hidden or wished away from memory, we are all pretty OK. And if that is the larger message that Cohen ultimately has to offer, that's pretty OK too.

Jeb Lund is a freelance writer and former political columnist and reporter for Rolling Stone and The Guardian. He has a podcast where he reviews Hallmark movies.