Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series Who Is America? debuted this morning on its streaming app (it will premiere on cable tonight at 10 p.m.), and in its first episode, it contains all the hallmarks of what made Borat and Ali G successful, hard-to-watch, and comically insightful as they were. In the series, Sacha Baron Cohen introduces four new characters to talk with a host of people, including Congressmen, Bernie Sanders, a Southern Republican couple, an art dealer, and some NRA enthusiasts.
The first segment sees Cohen character Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. Ph.D. — a man confined to a wheelchair by choice (to conserve his energy) — speak with Bernie Sanders about healthcare and the distribution of wealth. Senator Sanders, to his credit, acquits himself well in the interview. He listens to Ruddick, corrects him when he is wrong (or at least tries to), and never embarrasses himself.
The second segment is easily the most difficult to watch, almost to the point of being unbearable. In it, Cohen plays a loony liberal caricature who aims to “heal the divide” in America by trying to convince Republicans that their opinions are wrong. He talks to a South Carolina Republican couple who invite him into their home to discuss politics over dinner.
Rather than embarrass themselves, the real people actually take pains to indulge the characters. If anything, Cohen’s conversation with two Republicans illustrates how remarkably restrained they are in attempting to tolerate a character who forces his female daughter to stand up while she urinates, who asks his daughter to menstruate (or “free bleed”) on an American flag, and whose wife took a dolphin as a lover. Rather than objecting, the Republican husband and wife listen and at least try to honor his lifestyle. Their Southern manners are on full display. Who is America in this instance? America is a family of conservatives who try not to publically judge a man who is clearly trying to provoke them (when Cohen leaves the room, the husband suggests that his values are “f**ked up,” which is not an inaccurate statement).
The third segment is likewise uncomfortable and feels like a segment that would feel at home on an episode of Nathan Fielder’s show. In it, Cohen plays an ex-con who meets with a fine art dealer and shows her paintings he made with his own feces and semen (and semen extracted from his cellmate). The art dealer, again, indulges the ex-con. She is respectful, restrained, and tries to honor this man’s “genius.” She doesn’t even raise any objections when he leaves to evacuate his bowels and paint a portrait of her, and she ultimately gives him a few of her pubic hairs. What does this segment say about art dealers? Perhaps that what constitutes “art” is all bullsh*t, but mostly, it just illustrates again that people are polite and willing to indulge what appears to be a man clearly traumatized by his prison experience.
The final segment, however, is where Who Is America? is most effective in unearthing the unsettling reality of guns and politics. It is a bonkers segment that sees Baron Cohen play Col. Errad Morad — an Israeli gun advocate — speak with a guns-right expert; a gun lobbyist; and several Congressmen and former Congressmen. Morrad is pushing a “Kinderguardians” program that would allow toddlers to own guns and bring them into schools. “The only way to defeat a bad guy with a gun is to have a good boy with a gun.”
What’s odd is how little he has to do to convince these men — they don’t even need a light nudge. They’re fully on board right out of the gate. He first speaks to Philip Van Cleave, a gun rights advocate who has appeared on Fox News and who has no hesitation when it came to arming toddlers. In fact, he helps Morad make an instructional video for toddlers on how to use Gunamals (Puppy Pistol, Uzicorn, etc), stuffed animals with guns inside of them. Van Cleave also said that children under the age of 4 haven’t yet learned the difference between right and wrong and therefore would “make great soldiers.” What?
Next, he met with lobbyist Larry Pratt, the executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America, a guns-right organization with over 1.5 million members. Pratt, likewise, is taken by the idea of arming children. He encouraged the idea of toddlers “instinctively going for a gun” to shoot Muslims while they pray, and laughs agreeably with the idea that it’s not rape if it’s your wife. He finally agrees to help Morad introduce a bill to Congress to get guns in the hands of toddlers.
Surely, however, no Congressman would agree to such a thing, right? Wrong! Cohen gets former U.S. Senator Trent Lott, current Congressional Republican Dana Rohrabacher, current Congressman Joe Wilson, and former Congressman and current talk-show host Joe Walsh to agree to promote a guns-for-toddlers program. Did Sacha Cohen Baron dupe these Congressmen? Sure. Did he make these Congressman express support (as Walsh has claimed) for a program that puts guns in the hands of preschoolers? Absolutely not.
“Happy shooting, kids” says Joe Walsh.
The first episode of Who Is America? can currently be watched on the Showtime Anywhere app. It airs at 10 p.m. tonight on Showtime. The last segment, especially, is well worth watching.