Shot in secrecy, the satirist’s new show Who Is America? sees him take aim at Trump and the US political elite. It looks set to be something truly special
It is, by all accounts, a startling clip. A vaguely recognisable offscreen voice asks “Is it possible to sign my waterboard kit?” Then Dick Cheney – the real Dick Cheney – replies with a chirpy “Sure!”. After scrawling his name on a beaten-up bottle, he gleefully declares “That’s the first time I’ve ever signed a waterboard!” Ladies and gentlemen, Sacha Baron Cohen is back.
Baron Cohen’s new series, Who is America?, feels like an ambush. Announced just this week, it premieres in the UK and the US less than a week from now. Very little is known about Who is America? and that’s possibly for good reason. It promises to “explore the diverse individuals, from the infamous to the unknown across the political and cultural spectrum, who populate the unique nation”. Its billing as “the most dangerous show in the history of television” makes it sound less of a programme and more of a prison-yard shanking. The secrecy, you imagine, is likely due to the high-profile targets and the viciousness with which they are going to be taken down.
If Who is America? can go after Dick Cheney – a cuddly grandfather at this stage, yes, but an arch-villain of his time – then the sky is practically the limit. In a tweet, rightwing commentator Matt Drudge warned that Sarah Palin, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders and Ted Koppel were among those who had joined Cheney in falling prey to Baron Cohen. However, don’t expect the elephant in the room to go unignored either.
The first anybody knew about the series was when Baron Cohen posted a video addressed to Donald Trump on Independence Day. Baron Cohen’s Twitter bio is the following Trump quote: “They should have pummelled him (Baron Cohen) to the ground. It would have been great.” All signs suggest that Trump is squarely in Baron Cohen’s crosshairs, and it’s personal. Even if it ends up misfiring, Who is America? is going to be must-watch television.
It couldn’t come at a better time for the comic, either. This sort of thing – undercover, disguised, drawing out unwitting prejudices – is absolutely what he does best. It is astute and it is cruel and it is merciless. Nothing hits quite has hard when it is being used to make a point about the state of the world.
But it’s also designed to self-destruct on impact; as soon as Baron Cohen finds any kind of success with one approach, the jig is already up. Ali G stopped being a feasible vessel the second he appeared on television, for the simple reason that he was too instantly recognisable. It was the same with Borat. Bruno didn’t even make it that far, since by that point Baron Cohen was far too famous to get under the skin of his victims.
Compared to his pranks, the rest of Baron Cohen’s work suffers from almost terminal mundanity. Scripted fare such as The Dictator and Grimsby tends to labour under the weight of route-one crudeness. His actor-for-hire performances in Hugo and Alice Through the Looking Glass are competent enough, but no role yet has quite managed to fully capture his brazen impishness.
Who is America? has the potential to be a powerful return to form. Better yet, it seems as if Baron Cohen has learned some valuable lessons about sustainability along the way. The smattering of publicity so far revolves around a cast of characters, rather than one, which suggests that he has created something of a revolving panel. This means that if a character happens to enjoy a Borat-style breakout, then he can be dropped from the lineup without much disruption.
Also, it’s worth pointing out, none of the characters hinted at so far are as two-dimensionally comical as, say, Ali G. With Who is America? Baron Cohen seems to have realised the potential in relative anonymity. It’s the pranks that matter here, not the prankster.
Of course, things could always go wrong. Baron Cohen could, as is his wont, end up milking the life out of his characters until we’re all sick of them. The most notorious case here is Ali G who – thanks to a barrage of spinoffs and music videos – quickly became Baron Cohen’s Mr Blobby.
But, if he can resist this urge, and if he can maintain the power of the Cheney clip, then Who is America? has the potential to be nothing less than the defining television programme of our age. Just, please, don’t let Waterboard Guy appear in any Madonna videos.