Having lived through the past two years, one could be forgiven a certain level of exhaustion. Neo-Nazis are fine people. A porn star is suing the president. An alleged Russian spy infiltrated the National Prayer Breakfast. There are no new depths to plumb.
But after watching a Georgia state representative barrel backward across a gym, buttocks exposed, shouting, “I’ll make you a homosexual! . . . USA!” in an ostensible training exercise against Islamist terrorists, one might consider revising that opinion. We can always go lower, if only we try.
This was just one of many disheartening moments in comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series, “Who Is America?,” which premiered this month. In the show, the comedian disguises himself as a variety of exaggerated figures — a former Israeli military officer, a sleazy Italian billionaire, a right-wing conspiracy theorist and an absurdly far-left professor, among others — and sets out to expose Americans for who they really are. His targets are varied, and often the humor goes low; this is not prestige TV. But his ruses are ultimately revealing, not so much for what he tricks his marks into doing but in how they — and we — respond.
In the first episode, Cohen persuades several current and former Republican lawmakers to endorse an initiative to train preschoolers in the use of military-grade weaponry to prevent school shootings. Current House members Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) mindlessly mouth endorsements. Former congressman Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) closes out the program by saying straight into the camera: “In less than a month — less than a month — a first-grader can become a first grenade-er. . . . Happy shooting, kids.” In the second episode, Cohen asks former vice president Dick Cheney to sign a “waterboard kit” — and Cheney happily obliges.
The grotesque cheer with which elected officials take part in this farce is shocking enough. Their flimsy defenses once the circumstances come to light make them look even worse. Explained Walsh, with apparently no sense of self-awareness or irony: “They flew me out to D.C., they put me up in a hotel, they put me in a limo, they sent me off to this studio in Virginia . . . ”
Well, if there was a limo involved . . .
Such casual corruptibility is certainly dismaying. But what should really alarm us is what Baron Cohen is teaching us about ourselves: that this sort of behavior bothers us but is also expected. That we are uncomfortable with the direction in which our country is headed, but we also feel that it’s too far gone for us to do more than laugh, shrug and sigh. That in essence, we’ve given up. “Who is America?” is an ugly catalogue of disappointments, and we know. We have decided that there is nothing to be done.
Many professional reviewers have responded to Baron Cohen’s antics in this vein, with deadpan dismissals and downplaying of his obvious satirical skill. The first two episodes have been widely described as unhelpful and uncomfortable to experience. Yes, America is polarized and ridiculous. We already know how bad things are. In which case — do we really need to watch? This latest production is not art; it’s trolling. “Sacha Baron Cohen is back,” a headline in the New York Times read. “Should we care?” Apparently, not so much.
It may be true that we don’t learn anything new about the subjects Baron Cohen skewers this time around: Politicians are often sellouts. Reality TV stars will lie for fame. Many Americans will become wildly racist at the mildest prompting. Everything is awful; tell us something we don’t know.
But for all the costumes and clownery, the scatalogical humor and vice-presidential cameos, that very jadedness is the show’s biggest reveal — and the most disappointing gag of all. In reflecting our own tired acceptance of all the crazy, noxious thinking that has sent our country careening off course, Baron Cohen’s newest series is revelatory. Maybe it’s even art.