Courtesy: Showtime

Opinion

Sacha Baron Cohen Is Back, But Who's Laughing?

By now, you’ve probably heard that Sarah Palin is awfully steamed at Sacha Baron Cohen for punking her in an upcoming episode of his new Showtime series, Who Is America? Claiming he passed himself off as a wounded U.S. veteran to get face time with the most famous mayor in Wasilla, Alaska’s history, she called him “evil, exploitative and sick.” In character as Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., the right-wing doofus who’d interviewed her, Cohen refuted the charge by explaining that, in his case, “in the service” merely meant that he used to work for UPS.

As a rule, you probably shouldn’t count on Playboy to lead a chant of “Lock him up!” any time somebody helps Palin to make a fool of herself. For all we know, like the proudly self-reliant grizzly mama she is, she’s just indignant about her compatriots getting the impression that she needs any help. (Does Donald J. Trump? Hell, no. Ask Queen Elizabeth.)

In a way, though, that’s exactly what bugs us about Cohen’s return to cable TV, a decade and a half after Da Ali G Show, the series that introduced viewer to his M.O. of impersonating bizarre interlocutors to ridicule his targets’ gullibility. The 2006 movie Borat brought him to the U.S.A. as an inquisitive naif from faraway Kazakhstan, and briefly turned him into frat boys’ favorite satirist of the George W. Bush era. But as we watched the debut of Who Is America? on Sunday, two unwelcome words kept bobbing up in our brains, like Coney Island whitefish. One of them was “complacent,” and the other was “redundant.”
In case you aren’t a New Yorker and/or a Joan Jett fan, “Coney Island whitefish” is slang for a used condom. That’s our rude way of saying that Cohen is relying on the same old tricks in an era when satire could seriously use some new ones to make sense of the world we live in. He still thinks that getting people to embarrass themselves when they’re caught tolerating or outright endorsing his characters’ outlandish ideas scores real points against them, but embarrassment is an awfully quaint concept in Trump’s America. Outlandishness is also such a routine part of our political and cultural vocabulary these days that Cohen doesn’t have a very easy time thinking up satiric exaggerations of anyone’s beliefs or attitudes, leaving the traps he sets for his unwary prey looking about as fierce as a set of rubber dentures.

The premiere episode kicked off with Cohen, as Billy Wayne Ruddick, peddling a harebrained scheme to convert all Americans into members of the One Percent to Sen. Bernie Sanders. But if this was supposed to advertise up-front that Cohen means to be an equal-opportunity mocker, call us unfooled. The flimflam with moronic diagrams of how to bring the trick off was awfully sedate stuff by his standards, and he obviously wasn’t about to subject Sanders to the scatological gross-outs that are his stock in trade with people he truly wants to turn into chumps. Sanders himself has probably dealt with more than his share of kooky, earnest economic subliterates, and his dignity was never remotely at risk.
We have to wonder if Cohen’s proudly scurrilous techniques have any value, satirical or otherwise, in today’s America at all.
Next, posing as a a paunchy liberal in an NPR T-shirt, Cohen had dinner in the home of a pair of well-off Trump supporters named Mark and Jane Thompson, doing his best to provoke them with chatter about how he and his wife break down gender barriers by instructing their son to pee sitting down. Their daughter, meanwhile, is being taught to menstruate on an American flag, which leaves it looking more like a Chinese one. But even when Cohen upped the ante with a story about how his wife had once cuckolded him with a dolphin, the apparently un-shockable Thompsons went right on treating him with polite curiosity, not indignation.

This just left them looking like decent folk, not saps. If the intended point was to show that Trumplandia’s denizens will believe anything about liberals’ private lives, no matter how deranged, it got muffled by the couple’s perfect civility to their bonkers Left Coast guest. A few sequences in Borat backfired on their instigator in the same way, but Cohen—then as now—seemed too pleased with his own obscurantist cleverness to care.

Then, he was off to a Calif. art gallery in disguise as a British ex-convict named Rick Sherman, peddling paintings done with his own feces and semen to art expert Christy Cones, before asking her to contribute a few of her own pubic hairs to his next artwork. (You may see what we mean about handling Bernie Sanders with kid gloves by comparison.) Cones, however, stayed absolutely unflustered, kind of ruining a joke whose sexist undercurrent—a male art expert wouldn’t have been nearly as tempting a target for Cohen’s bodily-fluids daubs on smelly cardboard—was unpleasant anyway. Unlike Palin, Cones also didn’t get indignant even after learning she’d been pranked, which once again left Cohen looking like a bigger dork than she’ll ever be.

The debut’s showpiece “gotcha” sequence, though—running nearly twice as long as the others—had Cohen impersonating Col. Erran Morrad, an Israeli anti-terrorism guru selling gun-rights advocates and GOP lawmakers on a program to arm schoolchildren to deter future school shootings. Virginia Citizens Defense League president Philip Van Cleave got lured into appearing alongside Cohen in an infomercial for “Kinderguardians,” featuring weapons ornamented with plush toys and a ditty teaching the kids where to aim. Ex-Sen. Trent Lott, ex-Congressman Joe Walsh and current Republican representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Joe Wilson all happily endorsed the idea on camera.

Needless to say, we don’t plan to waste any sleep feeling sympathy for any of them. On the other hand, do we really need Sacha Baron Cohen to spring the hot news on us that today’s Second Amendment zealots are, well, zealots? Besides, he probably doesn’t know that, in many red states, youngsters do learn to handle weapons fairly early in life—sporting ones, at least—and so packing heat in classrooms isn’t quite the leap into flagrant surrealism he thinks it is. Gun activists have stoutly defended plenty of ideas that are every bit as crazy without him prompting them. In today’s America, it’s no surprise (let alone shock) that this crew doesn’t find his modest proposal totally implausible.

That’s why we have to wonder if Cohen’s proudly scurrilous techniques have any value, satirical or otherwise, in today’s America at all. It’s not as if he’s exposing us to any ugly truths about ourselves that we can’t already recite in our sleep or get instantly reacquainted with by checking our Twitter feed. At his worst, he’s just adding to the ugliness by further debasing the already battered concept of truth in the bargain. As the Washington Post’s always astute Hank Stuever pointed out in his own very thoughtful review, there’s no real difference between Cohen’s tactics and those of Project Veritas, the right-wing outfit that tries to discredit liberals by going undercover and catching—or more often, manipulating—evidence of their perfidy on video.

Nor does Trumplandia need any more incitement to feel outraged at liberal elites’ contempt for their bumpkin ways. If you want to chortle at Who Is America? anyway, we won’t blame you; it’s got some funny bits. But if doing so makes you feel morally superior to the most rancidly rancorous Trumpster in a MAGA cap, we’re pretty sure you’ll be kidding yourselves. Just because almost the only totally unfeigned thing about Cohen is his smugness, that doesn’t mean we have to share it.