Sacha Baron Cohen's act hasn't changed, from "Da Ali G Show" to "Borat" to his new Showtime series, "Who is America?" But the world has, which, in light of the media uproar he's triggered, raises the question whether the timing was very right -- or wrong -- for this comeback.
At a moment when commentary tends to gravitate toward the black and white, the not-entirely-satisfying answer appears to be a little of both, though not necessarily for the reasons his fans -- or critics -- would suggest.
For starters, it's not like what Cohen's doing is new, or even faded from the landscape during his TV absence. "The Daily Show's" field pieces have regularly captured political figures (usually conservatives) saying ridiculous, outlandish things, and Stephen Colbert made a pretty good living playing a right-wing blowhard before he landed on CBS, although at least there, everyone was in on the gag.
The buzziest aspect of "Who is America?" -- in which the comic/provocateur masquerades as a variety of characters to dupe unsuspecting marks, from well-known political figures to ordinary folk, usually with an agenda of their own -- exposes a steadfast commitment to talking points, no matter how absurd. In the premiere, that included Republicans and gun-rights advocates endorsing a proposal to arm toddlers ("Kinder Guardians," Cohen called them), even reading gibberish-filled copy directly into the camera.
Those segments expose two threads -- the first related to politics, including a willingness to espouse positions that sound increasingly extreme. The past and present officials reeled in by Cohen's bait don't elicit much sympathy, and their complaints about how the video was procured have only helped do Showtime's promotional work for it.
The second, and arguably more interesting part of Cohen's act, involves media. It's equally illuminating, if a little more problematic.
Cohen's routine is, in many ways, the opposite of "Candid Camera," which sought to reveal what people would do when they thought no one was looking. By contrast, "Who is America?" and its predecessors ask what people will say to be on TV, in an age where it seems like half the punditocracy is auditioning to be the next Ann Coulter.
The whole point of Cohen's act, really, is to test just how far people will go once the cameras are rolling -- to see how long they'll sit still as the "interview" becomes increasingly absurd. It creates a tension between wanting to be on TV and get one's points across (as well as sheer politeness) and the dawning realization that the person to whom they are talking might be a lunatic, fraud or both.
In a sense, Cohen is probing the comfort level of both his subjects and the audience. That's one reason why the segments can be so cringe-worthy, perhaps especially when they involve people who don't have armies of publicists and chiefs of staff to arrange and negotiate media appearances.
Where "Who is America?" feels poorly timed is in its reliance on deception to secure those moments. Granted, nobody forced those GOP congressmen to agree that arming four-year-olds would be a great idea. But when people are already having difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction, between real headlines and "fake news," anything that contributes to blurring the lines probably isn't helpful.
Weighing all those factors, there's still plenty to recommend "Who is America?" -- either to marvel at Cohen's improvisational skills, or as a reminder of the excesses that have infected our media and politics, even if that's not necessarily a major revelation at this stage.
Like so much else, Cohen's show won't change any hearts and minds, and more than most, it can appear mean-spirited. That might not make "Who is America?" the answer to what we need right now, but it does, in a way, serve as another sign of where we are.
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