“It’s not rape if it’s your wife, am I right?” Erran Morad says. He laughs and extends his hand to Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America, who shakes it. Morad has a rhomboid jaw and walks like he has razorblades in his armpits. But this Israeli gun rights advocate is in fact one of four characters played by British prankster Sacha Baron Cohen in his new Showtime series Who Is America?
The debut episode, which aired on Sunday, opens with a montage of scenes that have defined the country: the moon landing, JFK asking what you can do for your country, and so on. Then it snaps to Donald Trump mocking reporter Serge Kovaleski’s disability in 2015, as if in answer to the title’s question. The four Sacha Baron Cohen roles pick it up from there: Morad, alt-right broadcaster Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., PhD, lefty pink pussy hat-wearer Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, and ex-con artist Rick Sherman (“I made one mistake, just fourteen times”). Each of these characters is supposed to extract some observational truth about American culture, I think, with the overall effect of showing how fragmented and post-reality the country feels today.
Morad produces the most jaw-dropping spectacle of the show, and the one with the clearest payoff. On a pitch tour of American Republicans, he convinces a number of current and former members of Congress and other prominent conservatives to agree with him that preschoolers should be armed with guns. He gets Philip van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League to appear in a training video for toddlers. “Today we are gonna teach you how you can stop these naughty men and have them take a long nap,” he says. Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Joe Wilson, and former congressman Joe Walsh all follow suit, agreeing that certain “highly trained” children ought to be carrying guns in school. “In less than a month they can go from first grader to first grenader!” Joe Walsh exclaims. “The great thing about toddlers is that they have no fear of guns,” Morad observes, to sage nods. Pratt, of Gun Owners of America, continues the theme: “Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news and homosexuality.”
It is shocking viewing, but there’s also the sense that one shouldn’t be surprised. The unthinkable happens every day in contemporary politics. The day after this show premiered, Trump stood next to Vladimir Putin at a press conference and essentially sided with the Russian leader over the U.S. intelligence community. Cohen’s feat in the Morad character, then, is to push the political surreal into the uncanny, by bringing children’s television into it. He got Van Cleave to sing a song about aiming your gun at the “head, shoulders—not the toes, not the toes.” It’s ghoulish. If we are becoming numb to the dreamlike in our political theater, we at least are not yet immune to the eldritch specter of kids with fluffy firearms.
A friend of mine, also British, compared Cohen’s style with that of Louis Theroux, the other famous English interviewer. The self-deprecating and innocent Theroux brings out his subjects by creating a void where they expect the interviewer’s ego to be. He doesn’t play a character, he just plays a very nonjudgmental and kind version of himself.
But where Theroux makes space for the subject’s hubris or delusion to dominate the screen, Cohen does the opposite. In each of these characters, Cohen pushes rather than pulls. He pushes them to agree or disagree or to otherwise react to his insane statements, to see what people will do when they are knocked off the kilter of ordinary human interaction.
The value of this technique varies pretty widely. In the Morad segment, Cohen gets various Republicans to unmask parts of themselves. But in the other three segments, he only seems out to entertain. Who is America? begins with an interview between Cohen (as Ruddick, a fringe conservative broadcaster) and Senator Bernie Sanders. The scene is a bravura performance from Cohen, who gives an incredible account of how Sanders could transfer the 99 percent into the 1 percent, thus solving inequality. Sanders says he has no idea what Billy is talking about. I suppose it goes to show that Sanders is sane.
Also sane-appearing are the Republican couple who host Cain-N’Degeocello, the supposed Reed lecturer, and the Laguna Beach gallerist who humors Nick Sherman, recently released from prison. In the first scene, Cohen plays a performative liberal who bikes around in a pussy hat trying to “heal the divide” between himself and Republicans. The performance is a little bit offensive, as when Cain-N’Degeocello performs a fake Native American chant instead of grace. It’s partly brilliant, as when the character explains that when he forces his daughter to free-bleed he puts down a cloth because “it protects the Herman Miller chairs, which we love.” Throughout the dinner his Republican hosts seem perplexed and not much else.
When confronted by a lisping artist who has been incarcerated for 21 years, and who then shows her the art he has made with his feces, the Laguna Beach gallerist is positively heroic. She is kind about Sherman’s art, presents a pretty serious reading of its intentions, and supports his vision. What is the joke supposed to be here? That you can make art out of literal shit and get called a genius for it? If that was the intention, I don’t see why Cohen chose some provincial gallerist who peddles landscapes rather than a serious art-world gatekeeper. The whole segment was baffling—a medium-funny concept, but with no discernible target, political or otherwise.
The most fun moment in the first episode of Who Is America? must be the scene where Pratt, reciting a script given to him by Cohen (as Morad), explains how four year-olds see things “essentially, like owls ... in slow motion” and have “elevated levels of the hormone blink 182, produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora. This allows nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neural pathway to the Wiz Khalifa 40 times faster.” This is a low-level gag, but it’s so funny that it actually cheers you up a bit by forcibly dragging some humor out of the trainwreck of our public discourse.
This joke, as well as this whole segment on child gun rights, has a close ancestor in Chris Morris’s classic parody show Brass Eye.* In that show’s special on the public hysteria about pedophiles, Brown got a popular British radio host called Neil Fox to claim that, “Genetically, pedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me. Now that is scientific fact. There’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact.”
Being cheered up by a public figure acting like a complete idiot has some political value, because it helps you feel like somebody is on your side. But, as with Brass Eye, What Is America? reaches out across the screen and says to the viewer that not only does Cohen see what we see in American politics, he sees how maddened we are by the carousel of political television. When Neil Fox proclaimed that crabs and pedophiles were close cousins, and when Larry Pratt explains the operation of the Cardi B neural pathway, a wrench is thrown into the usual machinery of television that lurches from producer, through script, talent, banal statement, viewer outrage, brief news cycle, then back to the start.
*An earlier version of this article misidentified the star of Brass Eye. We regret the error.