"Who Is America?": What Sacha Baron Cohen's non-famous subjects say about who we are now

Pranking conservative politicians is entertaining, but Sacha Baron Cohen's civilian segments reveal so much more

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published August 20, 2018 4:16PM (EDT)

Sacha Baron Cohen (Getty Images)
Sacha Baron Cohen (Getty Images)

Lately some version of the saying, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” has been popping up all over the place. Sign of the times, one can say, and an indicator of the dire lens with which a number of people view the current state of our democracy.

Now place Sacha Baron Cohen and the work he’s been doing on “Who Is America?” into the context of this aphorism. If you’re familiar with the show and everything he’s accomplished in the six episodes that have aired so far, you should be very afraid for our future.

Above all else, Cohen and his stable of characters reveal how malleable we all can be, regardless of moral alignment. One’s definition of who is “good” is relative these days. Is Howard Dean “good”? How about Jill Stein?

The self-identified patriots attempting to lure undocumented immigrants by constructing a fake quinceañera (i.e. coming-of-age celebration for 15-year-old girls) to entrap them clearly think they’re American good guys.

There are some people who would call former Arizona governor Jan Brewer one of the good guys one since, in her brief appearance in the sixth episode of "Who Is America?" — in the middle of the end credits, no less — she affirms her position that all machine guns should be legal and available to all citizens. Even psychologically unfit adults with an affinity for ethnic cleansing. You know, making omelettes, breaking a few eggs, whatever it takes.

Who Is America?” has shown us many jaw-dropping moments and has no more significant purpose than to entertain viewers and embarrass people in power. Granted, by no means does Baron Cohen treat the political left and the right equally regardless of how ridiculous the adventures of his hyper-liberal Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello can become.

Along the way, though, the scariest truth the series has revealed about American culture is how much craziness powerful and rich people allow others they view as equal or greater than their station to get away with. Pranking politicians and their surrogates yields the most entertaining segments of the series, but to discover who we are as a nation and how dark the road ahead might get, observe Baron Cohen’s interactions with his “anonymous” subjects.

This week’s pièce de résistance is served by one of Baron Cohen's alter egos, the ex-con turned reality TV star Rick Sherman. In past weeks Sherman has nailed his transition from prison into regular society by dabbling in club culture under the moniker DJ Solitary and, in the first episode, persuading a gallery owner to consider the worthiness of paintings rendered in feces and ejaculate.

In Sunday’s episode, Baron Cohen as Sherman invites Bill Jilla, a notable food critic you’ve never heard of and founder of DinnerReviews.com, to sample his haute cuisine versions of prison commissary dishes.

First Sherman presents Jilla, whose expertise is self-declared, to sample an artfully re-imagined amuse-bouche version of beans and toast. All fine and good. The second course is more challenging: Sherman presents braised veal in a strawberry flavored condom — Anally-Aged Veal in a Strawberry Prophylactic, reads the onscreen script — replete with a colorful tale about a fellow inmate's creative efforts to smuggle in a prime cut of meat.

Then comes the main course. Regaling Jilla with a backstory about a very special meal he once served his prison husband, Sherman presents Jilla with a small but aesthetically pleasing portion of what looks like rare beef but is identified as Filet of Vegetarian-Fed Chinese Dissident and Cauliflower Puree.

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Jilla hesitates for a moment, but then takes a bite and immediately rhapsodizes about its excellence. Like butter, he says. “It’s melting on my palate.” Sherman explains that the tender mouth feel of this “ethically-sourced” human meat can be owed to the nature of the dissident’s confinement — he isn’t allowed to move around very much, Sherman explains to a nodding Jilla, who goes on to thank the prisoner’s family for their son and brother’s contribution to his dinner.

So far in “Who Is America?” the segments yielding the most comedic gold depict encounters with the strident, far-right elements of the conservative fringe, including former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and former Milwaukee County, Wisconsin sheriff David Clarke. Both were punked by Baron Cohen’s Finnish man-boy OMGWhizzBoyOMG, a living cartoon whose entire shtick consists of opening up mystery boxes containing tiny toys and getting guests like Arpaio to utter declarations like he “may have to say yes” to giving Trump a blow job.

Episodes without these famous conservative targets are considerably poorer, comedically speaking.

Both Dean and Stein appeared in the sixth episode in addition to National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, all of whom conversed for as long as they could stand it with Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. PhD of Truthbrary.org.

In Ruddick’s segments, he’s usually the one who emerges looking dumber than his interview subjects; his main purpose seems to be to test how long they’re willing to countenance his lunacy. Collins is quite patient and even displays concern when he thinks Ruddick may have infected himself with HIV.  (In contrast, former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski puts up with Ruddick long after he launches into a fake-history lecture about Buffalo Soldier Rastafarians led by Robert Marley, mostly for the camera time.)

Similarly, the sixth episode segments featuring Cain-N’Degeocello taking pregnancy empathy to new lows by enlisting a Las Vegas spiritual healer to assist with his imitation of a birthing experience via anal canal, or “terrorist terminator” Erran Morad’s pointless encounter with “Real Housewives of Orange County” stars Gretchen Rossi and Slade Smiley, indicate more about the limits of Baron Cohen's characters than his targets.

But Sherman’s moment with Jilla is a keen example of what’s really going wrong in our culture, in that it shows how many unconscionable acts people are willing to let others get away with before imposing any limits. As long as there’s profit to be made, people do not have a compelling reason to say no. Jilla ate what he believed to be human flesh in order to add to the list of encounters and experiences that speak to his expertise, which no doubt would have been chronicled on his website (which, conveniently, seems to have vanished).

He’s not alone. In fact, one of the most disturbing encounters in these recent episodes involves Baron Cohen’s Italian billionaire playboy Gio Monaldo interviewing an unnamed luxury yacht broker to discuss purchasing a vessel  for a person he implies to be none other than Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Among the upgrades he requests are military-grade weaponry, the ability to electrify the water as a deterrent to any refugees wishing to board, and accommodations roomy enough to make it easy to traffic women from Eastern Europe.

The broker did not bat an eye at any of these suggestions; nor did he pause, for a moment, when Gio’s female companion appeared to perform fellatio on him during the conversation.

And if the world is indeed ending, this is how “Who Is America?” shows us it could. It’s less a matter of good men doing nothing than all people, good or evil, allowing powerful people to get away with small obscenities, then larger ones, and on and on until we’ve lost the capacity for shock.

Maybe that’s why the sixth episode’s cannibalistic main event really wasn’t all that funny. Given that outcome, let’s hope the finale returns to the delights of ribbing right-wingers. They may be the ones pushing us toward the edge, but at least they’re good for a few laughs before the plunge.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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