Who is America, This is America
It’s a shame that older conservative men don’t listen to much rap music, because if more of them had heard Childish Gambino’s “This is America” they might have been better prepared for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? In particular the refrain, “this is America/don’t catch you slippin’ up” because if there is one thing that Cohen’s new Showtime series has been known for, it’s for catching conservatives slippin’ up. Before the series even premiered this month, Who is America? was already making headlines across the country as politicians from Sarah Palin to Roy Moore derided Cohen’s deceitful interviewing practices, in particular posing as a veteran. But that was before any of the interviews were actually shown to the public, interviews where senators and congressmen give their support for arming toddlers and use the n-word. Who is America? This is America.
Everything about this show seemed too good to be true: the triumphant return of Sacha Baron Cohen after a series of poor projects including The Brothers Grimsby in 2016, a healthy dose of “gotcha” journalism, and people like Roy Moore attempting to take the moral high ground because Cohen lied about who he was and nobody at Moore HQ bothered to look into it. Firstly let’s start with Cohen’s return to the limelight. It seemed for the past few years that his only lasting success would be confined to the constant reruns of Talladega Nights on TBS, or when you and your friends feel like watching Borat after enough drinks to be numb to the constant cringing. But it would have been impossible to predict Cohen coming out with a project of such cultural relevance that was so needed by society and, plot twist, it actually reverts back to the kind of comedy that made Cohen so famous, to begin with. All in all, the show might not have even been such a success if not for all of the Republicans he tricked making headlines mentioning the show over and over. They didn’t need to spend a single dime on advertising because Roy Moore did it for them.
Next, the “gotcha” journalism. This interviewing tactic has been all but extinct since the 2016 election when a debate could be live fact-checked to show countless lies and nobody would care. This is a much different media landscape than 10 years ago when the Palin v. Couric prize fight of “gotcha” went down on CBS News during the 2008 election. But now, when politicians get caught in a lie, they can just burrow in even deeper and millions of people will defend the double down online. But Cohen is able to recognize that and disrupt the normal cycle of hard-news interviews that air on TV, get spread on social media, and then themselves become a news story. The show itself was the news, the interviews are disseminated on Twitter before the episode is even up on Showtime Anytime, and then the politicians are forced to respond afterward.
And the other shining characteristic of Who is America? that makes the program so culturally relevant is what happens between episodes. Most of the interviewees have attempted to do damage control and put out statements before their episode airs, but Roy Moore’s response is by far the best. The failed Senate candidate and accused pedophile Moore, before the show even premiered, threatened Cohen with legal action with a public statement. But his statement so slyly mentions the multiple lawsuits Moore is currently involved in against people who said that he molested them decades ago, “I am involved in several court cases presently to defend my honor and character against vicious false political attacks by liberals like Cohen.” And all of this comes after Moore hops on his high horse and pretends that this whole issue is about Israel and liberals picking on Israel.
To be perfectly frank, the program would not be nearly as enjoyable if the conservatives who are humiliated on it weren’t going around doing free publicity for the show. I hadn’t even heard of the show until Moore released his statement three days ahead of the premiere, but once I saw the conservative backlash against Cohen’s “deceptive practices” that have now forced Georgia lawmaker Jason Spencer to resign after Cohen convinced him that the best way to stop a kidnapping is by shouting the n-word, I knew that this was going to be a seven-part publicity nightmare.
But that isn’t to say that the show’s content doesn’t have inherent value, because it is by far cringier than anything Michael Scott ever did on The Office. The show goes to such extremes of satire, almost to the point of unbelievability, but that is the point of the show, to actually show you who America is and answer the age-old question: people can’t really be this dumb, can they? An interview from the second episode has been criticized recently because it did not feature a Republican making an ass of himself (the ass came later with Jason Spencer) but rather Corinne Olympios who you may not remember from The Bachelor. Some viewers were angry that time was wasted on a twenty-something reality TV, I guess, “star” and not making a mockery of those in public office. But it’s important to include personalities like Olympios because she might just be a dumb blonde, but those dumb blondes make up America. The kind of person who will go on camera and lie about helping people in Sierra Leone just because a mysterious Italian playboy said he is in charge of the charity and will make it look real. Olympios at least has an excuse: she was on, essentially, a game show. She didn’t run for vice president, only to get duped by Borat.