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What Works And What Doesn't In Cohen's 'Who Is America?'

Jul 16, 2018
Originally published on July 16, 2018 9:56 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

The English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen premiered a new show last night on Showtime. It's called "Who Is America?" In the show, Cohen dresses up as different outrageous characters, all of whom go out and explore who is America. Now, this is a shtick he's used before in movies and TV. You probably remember Ali G or Borat. Cohen interviews real people, and he tries to get them to say wild things on camera. In this particular show, his characters include a guy wearing an NPR shirt.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHO IS AMERICA?")

SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello) Namaste. I'm Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, and I'm a cisgender white heterosexual male, for which I apologize.

KING: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans joins us now to talk about the show. Good morning, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right, so what is Sacha Baron Cohen trying to do here, and does it work?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, sometimes it's tough to know exactly what he's trying to achieve. It's this prank show. There's four different characters, some of whom seem to embody America's political divides, and they're talking to people who aren't really in on the joke. And in the segment featuring the character that you heard earlier, he has dinner with a wealthy couple who support Trump. And they treat him nicely even when he says these really outrageous things.

In the only segment that really worked for me from Sunday's show he plays this Israeli security expert who has convinced several conservative politicians and advocates to give testimonials for this program to give guns to toddlers. So we've got a clip of Larry Pratt, who's the former executive director of the lobbying group Gun Owners of America, and he's doing this fake public service announcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHO IS AMERICA?")

LARRY PRATT: Toddlers are pure, uncorrupted by fake news or homosexuality. They don't worry if it's politically correct to shoot a mentally deranged gunman. They'll just do it.

DEGGANS: So it seems like the intent there is to show how extreme some gun rights advocates can be, which is not exactly news.

KING: I saw that clip. It really is something else with a gun in, like, a stuffed animal. We've already...

DEGGANS: I know, gunimals (ph).

KING: Gunimals, right. Some people who've been interviewed for this show, including Sarah Palin, complain that they were tricked by Cohen. Is she made to look bad? Are others made to look bad?

DEGGANS: Well, Palin doesn't appear in the first segment. And, you know, we also saw footage of Dick Cheney...

KING: Yeah.

DEGGANS: ...In an ad. We don't - we didn't see either of them. But the gun segment I think was where subjects came off the worst. Bernie Sanders was in the first episode, and he just kind of looked confused. So this show seems like maybe it was made less for TV - traditional TV and more for viral videos. You know, Sacha Baron Cohen announced the show - Cohen announced the show a week ago on Twitter. He had a clip of one of his characters interviewing Dick Cheney, asking him to sign his homemade waterboarding kit.

KING: Oh, dear.

DEGGANS: And - yeah. Showtime held a screening for a handful of journalists and fans, so there's a sense that they're trying to build buzz for this show.

KING: I wonder what you think, though, about the deception. I mean, you remember the conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe. He tricked people, including former officials here at NPR, into saying controversial things to basically operatives who were lying about their identity. Is this the same thing?

DEGGANS: Well, I think one big difference is that people in Cohen's series know that they are being filmed for a production.

KING: OK.

DEGGANS: O'Keefe used hidden cameras and microphones. You know, Cohen doesn't claim to be a journalist, and he doesn't spend a lot of time trying to tell you how to feel. In some ways, his work is kind of like a Rorschach test. He presents these situations where real people are reacting to these absurd characters, and I think viewers kind of judge it depending on how they already feel about some of these subjects. And by the show's title, it sounds like he's trying to reveal something about American culture. But if I didn't know who made it, I would think this was someone satirizing America who didn't really know America.

KING: NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans - thanks, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.