Sacha Baron Cohen always seeks a reaction — and he usually gets one.
He’s a modern-day provocateur. A real-life Internet troll, only with a social conscience and a good agent. His British gangster character Ali G famously caught the ire of one Donald Trump. His beloved Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev so infuriated a group of fraternity brothers that found themselves on the butt end of one of his jokes that they unsuccessfully sued him. He was again sued when the aftermath of a stunt perpetrated by his German fashion critic Bruno allegedly left a woman disabled.
Well, here we are again, time being a flat circle and all. This time with Showtime’s “Who Is America?,” in which Cohen has donned several disguises to infiltrate and mock U.S. politics — primarily, if the first episode is any indication, the conservative side of them.
Naturally, the show has caused a splash, inviting a cavalcade of reactions ranging from furious to fawning.
The first wave of reactions came before the show even aired from those who had been fooled by Cohen into being on it, such as Sarah Palin, Roy Moore and former congressman Joe Walsh.
Palin was furious that she and her daughter flew across the country to meet what she thought was a disabled U.S. veteran but was, of course, Cohen “heavily disguised” with a “fake wheelchair and all.” She characterized the prank, which isn’t featured in the first episode, as “truly sick.”
Her outrage proved to be great advertising for the show. As one user tweeted: “big shout out to Roy Moore and Sarah Palin. without their public and totally justified outrage about @SachaBaronCohen I would not have been reminded that his new show premiers this sunday at 10pm on showtime! thanks y’all!”
Walsh, meanwhile, was unhappy about the final segment of the premiere episode. In it, Cohen portrays the fake Israeli “anti-terror expert” Col. Erran Morad and offers a “solution” to America’s epidemic of school shootings. Called “Kinderguardians,” the fake program would put guns in the hands of children 3 and older.
Cohen-as-Morad visits Washington and finds support for his program from the likes of several lawmakers, including former Illinois congressman Walsh, who enthusiastically backs the program.
Walsh claimed he thought he was “getting an award from some Israeli TV station because I’m a great supporter of Israel” and that he felt duped into saying things such as “Happy shooting, kids.”
But while he wasn’t happy, many on Twitter were ecstatic with the segment — and the rest of the episode. Of the premiere, that sketch garnered the most reactions from viewers. “Who Is America?” had a strange rollout, first appearing online Sunday morning and then premiering on television that evening, more than 20 hours later. This clever marketing ploy gave the episode time to sink into the American psyche (by which we mean to penetrate Twitter).
Actress Annabelle Wallis called the show “one of the bravest uses of comedy I have ever seen. It sparks a very deep moral conversation about the world we live in and it is HILARIOUS!! I am in shock and awe…OH MY GOD.”
Comedian and actress Chelsea Peretti employed all caps on Twitter to express her excitement, saying, “IT IS BEYONDDDDDDDDD. SO FUNNY AND SO DARK AND HAS INSANE DEPTH. PPL SHOWING WHO THEY TRULY ARE. AMAZING.”
Comedian Kate Berlant was blunter. She shared a clip from the “Kinderguardians” segment on Twitter and wrote, “These people need to be humiliated & dragged through the mud,” adding that the show “is scathing & hilarious & painful.”
Others had more politically minded thoughts, such as screenwriter Randi Mayem Singer, who tweeted that “Sacha Baron Cohen didn’t ‘dupe’ anyone . . . He merely put an insane idea in front of bought-and-paid-for NRA shills. They considered it only through the prism of the NRA, then responded the way they knew the NRA would want them to respond. Period.”
“Going out on a limb here, but probably safe to say — any elected official who was duped to appear in the new @SachaBaronCohen series . . . should be permanently disqualified from ever receiving classified information,” said former Florida congressman David Jolly.
Conservative voices, meanwhile, were fairly quiet. One person, for instance, claimed that the show “is really bad. Embarrassing bad. I love Sasha Baron Cohen. But I can’t believe this is real.” But conservative street artist Sabo went a step further, taking over a billboard in Los Angeles in protest of the show and its “stolen valor.”
On Monday afternoon, Showtime released a statement that read: “Baron Cohen did not present himself as a disabled veteran, and viewers nationwide who watched the premiere on Sunday can now attest to that.”
“In Sunday’s episode, during an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, Baron Cohen in character as Dr. Ruddick was asked by the Senator if he is disabled, and he stated that he is not and uses a mobility scooter to conserve his energy,” the network said. “In addition, Baron Cohen never presented himself as a veteran of the U.S. military to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin during the booking process or during the filming of her interview, and contrary to her claims he did not appear in a wheelchair. In both the interview with Governor Palin and the interview with Senator Sanders, he did not wear military apparel of any kind.”
Film critic Richard Roeper offered one of the most even views on the show, calling it “an equal opportunity offender; one of Cohen’s satirical characters is a guilt-ridden liberal. But the real clowns are the politicians who voice support for ‘Kinderguardians,’ a fake initiative to put guns in the hands of toddlers.”
But perhaps writer Tina Dupuy said it best when she wrote, “There are a couple of comms directors on the Hill having a very bad night.”