Between “Borat,” “Brüno,” and “The Dictator,” Sacha Baron Cohen is known for portraying absurd fictional characters who navigate situations in the real world. His most recent production, “Who is America?” is no different. In the Showtime series that premiered this summer, Baron Cohen takes on the roles of six different personas—a radical, fake-news-endorsing republican, a self-hating ultra-liberal and an Israeli ex-Mossad agent, to name a few—who each seemingly aim to represent (or, more likely, mock) a different part of modern American society.
Just like in his other shows, Baron Cohen wears out the definition of “gotcha journalism.” He relentlessly dupes unassuming targets and films their reactions for national television. Unlike his other work, though, Baron Cohen’s newest project has a specific purpose: to explain (with humor) the current state of our broken America.
Featuring a cast of A-list celebrities including former presidential candidates, TV stars, and government officials, the show gave Baron Cohen a perfect opportunity to answer his titular question: “Who is America?” That said, the British comedian’s newest project was no better than a joke without a punchline; he failed to provide a conclusion for any critiques he hinted at towards America, garnering only assorted laughs and, at times, a moderate sense of doubt in our elected officials (which this isn’t a new feeling).
While Baron Cohen certainly didn’t invent “gotcha” moments, his overwhelming use of the tactic, and the entire premise of his show, is harmful to the reputation of the media. By constantly fooling respected officials, Baron Cohen delegitimizes the work of real journalists. Whether the subject is Roy Moore or Bernie Sanders, these leaders will be less likely to open up to members of the media with the fear that any new interview is just another opportunity to get them to say something ridiculous. While sometimes, his tactic is effective in revealing the true, malignant nature of our elected officials—like when he got a group of local politicians to endorse a campaign to arm children—most of his segments result in him tastelessly trying to make his subjects angry or look stupid. Should Baron Cohen continue on this track, he will encourage more people to subscribe to the notion of “fake news,” an outcome that seems to counteract his intended goal with the project.
While the funniest moments of Baron Cohen’s show are when he poses as an Israeli soldier to ease stereotypical anxieties of Trump supporters from middle America, these bits are also the most problematic. Even though Baron Cohen could likely make anybody look ridiculous irrespective of political party, by targeting these people he furthers the perception of Trump supporters as ignorant and uneducated. His tendency to make conservatives the brunt of almost all his jokes doesn’t help lead our country towards unity, but rather towards further partisan division.
On August 26, 2018, Baron Cohen announced that his seven-episode series would not return for a second season, which is for the best. The problem with his show was not that it failed to produce a few laughs, but rather that Baron Cohen attempted to explain Trump’s America and not only failed, but left more problems than what we started with. I’ll probably continue to laugh at whatever else the comedian releases, but Baron Cohen should stay away from politics until he has something unique to say.
By Zach Blank