‘Who is America?’ fails as comedy and commentary

Photo courtesy of Showtime

Sacha Baron Cohen has made a career out of shameless and confrontational comedy which is often downright difficult to watch. His modus operandi is to use over-the-top characters to confront politicians with extreme versions of either themselves or of their political opponents.

Cohen often uses deception and psychological manipulation to coerce his targets into saying embarassing things.

His methods are controversial to say the very least, but the outcome of these methods has largely been hilarious and illuminating in the past.

On July 15 Cohen embarked his first foray into political comedy in the Trump era with the release of the first episode of his new show, “Who Is America?”

The series follows his classic formula of getting political figures to agree with outrageous statements by putting them in difficult situations. The show claims to be an honest and original look at some of America’s deepest political demons. Cohen certainly does create some genuinely dark moments, but he fails to examine or comment on these moments in a novel or productive way.

Cohen pays lip service to the idea of keeping the show balanced by taking aim at both liberal and  conservative targets, but Cohen’s agenda in creating the show is obviously left-leaning.

The episode mocks progressives when Cohen takes on the persona of an eccentric artist who works by smearing feces on cardboard and tricks a gallery owner into praising his art as revolutionary and even “genius.”

While this skit does a good job of highlighting the absurdity of the way in which the art world blindly accepts anything unique regardless of quality, it does not really portray this as problematic. It simply makes the progressive art world seem silly, not dark.

In contrast, Cohen portrays conservatives as callous and downright evil in a skit in which he tricks pro-gun activists into advocating the arming of toddlers to prevent school shootings.

If Cohen wants to create a show which advocates a progressive agenda and criticizes conservatives, that’s his prerogative. To claim that his show is about examining America’s problems in a productive manner and then use it to sow division, however, is simply disingenuous.

The most memorable part of the first episode of the show is the segment in which Cohen goes undercover as an Israeli gun advocate to embarass pro-gun politicians and activists.

Cohen coerces his targets into defending the idea of arming toddlers to prevent future school shootings, highlighting just how far some individuals are willing to go to pin the blame for gun violence on causes other than the firearms involved. This segment is by far the darkest part of the first episode and is rather diffcult to get through.

The biggest problem with “Who Is America?” is that, for reasons which are hard to pin down, most of Cohen’s comedy simply falls flat. The first episode of the show is, frankly, not funny.

Perhaps it is the seriousness of the issues covered, or perhaps Cohen’s characters and delivery are just a bit off, but viewers won’t  have much to laugh at in this episode. If the series is not going to solve any political problems, it had ought at least to be funny.

Ultimately, “Who Is America?” may bring some of America’s political and social demons to light, but it will not do much to exorcise them, and it certainly won’t create very much laughter.