Jul 15, 2018

Channel Surfing: Who is America?

Scene from Who is America?
Welcome to a new column called Channel Surfing, in which I sporadically look at current TV shows and talk about them. These are not ones that I care to write weekly recaps for and are instead reflections either on the episode, the series, or particular moments. This will hopefully help to share personal opinions as well as discover entertainment on the outer pantheon that I feel is well worth checking out, or in some cases, shows that are weird enough to talk about, but should never be seen.
As of last week, it has been nine years since actor Sacha Baron Cohen has annoyed America with one of his fledgling, subversive characters who possess the ability to mix lowbrow antics with highbrow commentary. 2009's Bruno marked the end of a decade in which Cohen's work on Da Ali G Show produced three movies (most notably Borat) and turned him into an Andy Kaufman-level genius. Even with a legitimate film career in the interim, there has constantly been rumors as to whether he would ever return to the world of "street theater" where he interviews politicians and citizens alike in candid ways to get some of the most surreal comedy imaginable. It has been a running joke for so long that the idea of randomly dropping an advert last week to get audiences ready for his new Showtime series, Who is America?, the following week seemed like a reason to bring out trumpets and celebrate.
The tragedy of Who is America? is that Cohen cannot use his three most iconic characters from Da Ali G Show. Part of the art of fooling people is not revealing the joke. As a result, he must create four characters, each representing various facets of contemporary American society. There's Billy Wayne Ruddick: a Confederate flag-waving man who runs a Breitbart-esque website and spends his brief time with Senator Bernie Sanders discussing how giving 99% of the people the wealth would make them the 1%. He also rides around in an electric cart to save up his energy, but complains about being obese. The interview is familiar territory for Cohen, but feels a bit underplayed by the segment's end. At most, it has Sanders - who has become a beloved Democratic figure following the 2016 presidential election - looking grumpily at a man who doesn't have a strong argument. Unlike other Cohen creations, the biggest issue lies in the lack of a joke here. Ruddick is frustrating for sure, but he inevitably has very little of a premise to work with. It could just be that the modern age has produced enough real life Ruddicks to compensate for any need of satire - both making it a great Cohen creation and a bit lazy - but he's arguably not providing as much depth as when Cohen's gangster Ali G would get politicians to spout crazy nonsense for his own benefit.
The second new character also proves to be a bit one note in the first outing, but has more going on than Ruddick. Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello is essentially an exaggerated form of liberals down to wearing an NPR shirt. His journey to having dinner with a Conservative couple is a familiar set-up, and has the most potential to getting awkward comedy between two opposing viewpoints. With some cultural appropriation dinner rituals, Cain-N'Degeocello comes across as the more aloof one, making him perfect Cohen material reminiscent of Borat down to absurd exchanges regarding his daughter's (Malala) menstrual cycle. It's the awkward material that Cohen has made a name for himself with, and it's one of the first signs that maybe this character will have something to say. Still, he falls onto the side of Ruddick, who is one note and seems to be more stereotypes than subversion, meant to reflect Conservatives discomfort with the Liberal "agenda." It's a decent concept, but again doesn't have the brilliant brevity of a narrative like Cohen's Borat, Ali G, or Bruno. Cain-N'Degeocello mostly is an idea of what a Conservative raw nerve is, and it mostly works more than Ruddick because there's a sense of actual thought going into the segment than to look dumb from the opposite perspective.
The following segment begins to develop something familiar. Much like Borat being a foreign reporter, Rick Sherman is an ex-con wanting to make it in society. It's an easy premise and one that immediately makes more sense than Ruddick or Cain-N'Degeocello's one note gimmick. It is also here that Cohen finally begins to get the surreal touch back by having his subject view art work made from excrement and semen. The comedy of manners causes a sense of discomfort that is hilarious in part because of having to play nice to Sherman, who is an adequate artist at best and whose story of inspiration (one person didn't like being drawn in excrement, so they stabbed him) is just as absurd. However, what is evidence that Cohen is on another level with shameless manipulation is when he manages to get the woman, fairly elegant and upper class, to donate her pubic hair to "art." It's the episode's most baffling moment (given what's to come) as it cuts to her in the bathroom negotiating how much pubic hair to give Sherman. It's a very dumb segment that in part works because of how it explores the subversive nature of art and who puts value on it, as well as how sometimes things get acclaim just to appease others. It may be a short-lived appeal, but Sherman is one of Cohen's better creations on Who is America? so far.
Finally, there is Erran Morad, who is quite easily Cohen's best creation of the four. He is a man that more than defines "gun nut." He is wanting to create a program to train children to have guns, known as "Kinderguardians." It's a surreal concept that never forgets that gun violence is a taboo situation. In fact, it's constantly in discussion throughout the episode. Morad's visual appearance may be the most comical of the three, what with his buff nature and Groucho Marx-esque eyebrows, but he's also the most fascinating as an NRA-loving man who makes a cutesy ad with politicians for "Gunimals," which are guns with animals on top (such as Puppy Pistol). It's a surreal concept that makes his character all the more fascinating, as Cohen takes the situation to its most radical potential. Kinderguardians is a bill that he wants to pass, and in the process gets a good look into how a certain breed of politicians would think of the bill if it were to ever (and that's a big if) get through congress.
It's in the closing few minutes that Who is America? finally feels like a partnership to Da Ali G Show, with a series of senators and politicians not only endorsing the bill, but deliberately stating its agenda. Kids should have guns, many say. It's the type of image that would be more absurd if gun violence wasn't a thing. Instead, it's a discomforting view on par with the Borat movie's view of pro-militarism and xenophobia in the Texas scenes. It has the edge that Cohen wants, and it creates a provocative view for an era that is getting harder to shock. Even then, the fact that people like Sarah Palin are already complaining about Cohen punking them on his show is a sign that the comedian is doing his job, and returning to the world of subversive comedy with a heavy arsenal.
So, what exactly works about the show? The answer is that Cohen's creations are a bit generic when looked at from contemporary American standards. Whereas Da Ali G Show looked at America from the outsiders' perspective, here he's using familiar archetypes, which makes them easier to get into situations that Borat has since been banned from for being too familiar. Who is America? is a bigger risk because of social media and the idea that Ruddick or Morad could be called out as fakes. Still, in a time where fake news is a thing that plagues discourse, Cohen is the best kind of fake. He's the kind of fake that hopes to find entertainment and provocative thought in the most mundane and juvenile places possible. It may not always be for the best, but he still has a knack for infiltrating places that would be uncomfortable to the average person. 
The bigger issue in terms of just entertainment is that Who is America? lacks a lot of what makes Da Ali G Show or its subsequent movies essential viewing. Sure, Cohen has a lot of promise in the first episode and it's great to see him back on TV. But there's very little more than a gimmick in cases like Ruddick or Cain-N'Degeocello. They are figures that in some ways cancel each other out. It isn't like Da Ali G Show, where Ali G (gangster), Borat (foreigner), and Bruno (homosexual) represent three different areas of thought. These four characters often cover portions of the same base. So while Morad and Sherman may be entertaining conceptually, they have yet to capture the same appeal as Cohen's earlier work. Also, on a more cynical note, none of them would make for a good solo movie.
Who is America? is going to be a tough sell in part because Cohen has already developed the reputation as an eccentric provocateur. If you love him, there's a good chance that there's something here to dive into. If you hate his other work, then the idea of making Bernie Sanders groan will probably seem just as obnoxious. Still, it's a compelling piece of work when it hits those familiar notes, and Cohen's commitments are just as astounding (especially in the make-up department). But it's hard to see this show going for long, in part because social media may ruin the joke. Maybe it will be another nine years until we see something from him like this again. By then, will he even be agile enough to pull off the physicality of these characters in whatever technology-heavy world we live in? For now, Who is America? has a lot of promise in at least exploring contemporary society in a meaningful, or mostly crass, way. 

No comments:

Post a Comment