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Who is America? has no idea how to satirise liberals, or is just too scared to – episode 6 review

Sacha Baron Cohen's show traps Republicans into corners with hilarious consequences, but holds fire when it comes to Democrats

Christopher Hooton
Monday 20 August 2018 05:20
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Who Is America?: Howard Dean duped by Sacha Baron Cohen into discussing the likelihood of Hillary Clinton being a man

Bravery, quick wit, accent skills and a staggering ability to keep a straight face – all the qualities Sacha Baron Cohen has displayed in his new TV show Who is America? – enable him to pull off pranks few comedians could manage. As a weekly piece of light, absurdist, half-hour comedy, it does the job nicely. But as the exploration of a divided America that it claims to be, it has fallen well short.

Vox recently argued that the show reinforces the Right’s “fake news” narrative, and will only serve to make Republicans even more suspicious of an entertainment industry that it already assumes is out to get them. This may well be true, but it could have been avoided if only Who is America? had been even-handed in how it sends up its politicians.

The format for a classic Who is America? prank is simple and as follows. Find a political target; present them with a character who broadly shares their opinions but in more extreme form; then give the target enough rope to hang themselves, as they either endorse the character’s egregious views, or don’t distance themselves sufficiently.

The show has done this time and again with Republican figures and hardened Trump voters, but proves completely ineffective whenever a Democrat is lured in front of the camera. Invariably, instead of being paired with self-loathing cis gender professor Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, they are interviewed by Baron Cohen’s alt-right conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr, PhD. This was the case with episode 6, which saw Ruddick Jr advance his crazy takes on Hillary Clinton and “climax change” to former DNC chair Howard Dean and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, both of whom simply dismissed the crackpot theories and moved on. No laughs, no deep-seated bigotry or hypocrisy exposed. These were toothless and mirthless segments you wish you could have skipped.

Sure, satirising the Right might be a more noble pursuit in this dangerous moment in America’s history, but the Left is just so ripe for prodding and mockery. Think how easily the Dr Nira character could get a prominent Democrat to endorse some nonsense, simply because not having heard about a new social justice movement risked making them a pariah among fellow Twitter liberals.

Had Who is America? poked fun on both sides of the aisle, it could have made an important point about intellectual dishonesty, performative politics and destructive tribalism in 2018 America. Instead, we’ve simply been given yet another Trump ridicule machine, albeit a better one than the broadsides of pandering talk-show hosts in their opening monologues lately.

Given the censorial limitations currently being imposed on comedy – when the breadth of taboo is widening a mile a day, and offence is deemed unacceptable – Who is America?’s inability to lampoon the modern Left is worrying but unsurprising. It’s not an oversight, but stems from fear – a fear of alienating its own Left-leaning audience.

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