Sacha Baron Cohen's new TV series finds outrageous humor in our country's anxieties

In "Who Is America?," he dons disguises to fool politicians (like Dick Cheney) and others into taking his bizarre interviews and stunts seriously — to their later regret.

click to enlarge Sacha Baron Cohen - PHOTO: Joella Marano
PHOTO: Joella Marano
Sacha Baron Cohen

Sacha Baron Cohen is back.

On July 4, the sardonic master of disguise delivered a cryptic video on Twitter featuring clips of Donald Trump bashing Cohen in 2012, the Trump University logo and the message, “Sacha graduates soon.” I was intrigued. My first thought was that there must be a forthcoming movie in the vein of Borat and Bruno, but I’d long wondered how or if Cohen could ever replicate the success of his hilarious characters that so rely on him staying incognito. Isn’t he too much of a famous face now?

Yes and no.

Mystified fans like myself soon got clarity on the project when Showtime announced a new Cohen series called Who Is America? (10 p.m. Sundays, Showtime).

In this political mockumentary, Cohen harkens back to his roots in the Emmy-nominated Da Ali G Show, going deep undercover to dupe politicians, public figures and others with his signature style of irreverent satire. 

Here, Cohen transforms into not one but four new characters: Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., “citizen journalist” for truthbrary.org; Democratic activist and gender studies lecturer Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello; British ex-convict and budding artist Rick Sherman; and Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terror expert. Cohen has displayed an uncanny ability to alter his appearance with minimal effort in previous works, but now turns to body pads and prosthetics to pass as these varied characters.

Cohen is granted unprecedented access to high-profile individuals that clearly have no idea who they’re really speaking to. The premiere episode features Bernie Sanders, and other targets in the series include Sarah Palin (who’s already been quite vocal about being tricked by Cohen as Ruddick), Dick Cheney, Matt Drudge, Ted Koppel, Howard Dean and Roy Moore. As always, Cohen is not only interested in a “gotcha” moment for conservatives, but in exposing everyone’s true colors across the spectrum.

Case in point: the NPR-loving, pussyhat-wearing bleeding heart liberal Cain-N’Degeocello. His segment of Who Is America? aims to “heal the divide” in the country, meeting with folks on the opposite side of the party line, like Trump voters and Republican delegates.

And on the far — or alt — right side of that line lies Ruddick of truthbrary.com (as opposed to the “lie-brary” of fake news from mainstream media). Overweight with blonde hair and mustache, this is perhaps Cohen’s best disguise. Ruddick primarily appears seated on a mobility scooter, which — as he explains to Sanders during their interview — is not due to a disability, but to conserve his “body’s finite energy.” 

His alt-right conspiracy theorist outlet à la InfoWars is a real, working site that you definitely need to check out. On it he claims it was he that was duped into appearing on Cohen’s show. He even posted a letter to Palin demanding an apology for her reaction, saying he never lied to her about being a member of the service (United Parcel, that is) and that he has defended his country — by shooting a Mexican on his property.

The most poignant character is hulky “terrorist terminator” Morad, who, with an assist by gun lobbyist Philip Van Cleave, convinced a number of current and former U.S. senators and representatives to back a proposal to arm children as young as 3 years old as part of a “kinder-guardian” program. Anything to combat liberals’ “anti-tragedy agenda,” right?

Least compelling so far is Sherman and his “Ex-Con Second Chance” show. I don’t really get the choice to make him a cockney Brit or create art out of his own excrement, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh at even the more base-level jokes.

Who Is America? has already faced plenty of criticism, some of which is warranted. There’s concern that it pokes fun at regular people rather than politicians, but I argue that in creating these ridiculous characters, the joke’s on the people who buy it. Sanders humoring the logic of “moving the 99 percent into the 1 percent” and Trump voters holding back their obvious disapproval of a liberal man forbidding his son from peeing standing up speaks more to their own prejudices.

In this time of “trolling,” Cohen is still supreme. In Who Is America?, he makes us laugh, think, groan and laugh again. And what better time than now for that type of crude yet critical insight?

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern