Sacha Baron Cohen’s most savage work since Borat or a nadir to rival Grimsby? Critics are divided on the comic’s return to TV after 14 years

US critics have questioned how well Sacha Baron Cohen’s guerrilla style of comedy has adapted to the ‘shameless’ era of Donald Trump, with many left frustrated by a ‘hit and miss’ set of characters and sketches.

While none doubted Baron Cohen’s abilities as a comic performer, many of their overnight reviews of Who Is America? suggested that the show fell short of the expectations raised by Showtime’s clandestine marketing campaign for the return of the ‘premier provocateur of our time’ in his first TV project in 14 years.

In the Hollywood Reporter, Daniel Fienberg lamented that shame – “the secret ingredient in Da Ali G Show” – was the missing ingredient here.

“Unfortunately, it’s not an ingredient that proves merely incidental,” he said. “It’s the difference between shocking and not shocking, between hilarious and simply fleetingly funny.” 

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Bernie Sanders (left) with Sacha Baron Cohen in character

He argued that in his baiting of figures on the left and right, including the 2015 Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Republican Matt Gaetz, “Baron Cohen hasn’t really gotten anybody to espouse any ideology that they wouldn’t and haven’t advocated proudly without the subterfuge. We live in a world in which barriers between public brand and private ideology have essentially been erased.”

Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff savaged the show’s “empty anger”, declaring: “The biggest dupes are anyone who watches.”

He said it “could just as easily convey its central thesis by having Baron Cohen stand in front of a billboard reading “Most People Are Ignorant” for a few hours.”

“About as ‘dangerous’ and ‘cold-blooded’ as a multi-coloured inflatable pool unicorn”
Dominic Patten, Deadline

In the New York Times, Mike Hale agreed, branding Baron Cohen’s approach “tepid and inconsequential” in 2018.

“We’ve gotten so used to people saying crazy and hurtful things of their own free will in public that watching them being tricked into doing so doesn’t have the entertainment value it used to,” he wrote.

But Esquire critic Matt Miller said Who Is America? is Baron Cohen’s “most savage work since Borat”.

He said: “It likely won’t change anything. But, at the very least, his viewers can take some small, sick pleasure out of watching this country’s ruling class make assholes of themselves on TV.”

In Variety’s review, Daniel D’Addario said Who Is America? showcased ”the magic of Baron Cohen at his best: simultaneously devising bizarre and seemingly impossibly outré bits of social commentary, and knowing the culture well enough to be sure that his targets will be along for the ride”.

Some of the most damning criticism came from Deadline’s Dominic Patten, who once thought Baron Cohen “one of the shrewdest and most side-splitting people on the planet”. For him, all the new series provoked was “a great inducement to change the cable channel”, filled as it was with “mild shock, zero awe and a lot of recycled scenarios”.

Branding the show “about as ‘dangerous’ and ‘cold-blooded’, to quote WiA’s promos, as a multi-coloured inflatable pool unicorn”, he said it rivalled the 2016 movie Grimsby as “the stupidest thing Baron Cohen has ever conceived”.

New characters

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Kill or Be Killed?: Baron Cohen (right) in character as Colonel Erran Morad

Baron Cohen played four new characters in the first episode (a fifth appears in the second, the only other episode seen by any critics, and one which remains subject to a non-disclosure agreement).

Of these, Rick Sherman, a British ex-convict who makes art out of his own faeces, was judged the weakest due to the obviousness of its art-world targets and indulgence of Baron Cohen’s cruder side.

The climactic sketch, Kill or Be Killed?, an outrageous spin on attitudes to gun violence, introduced Israeli anti-terror expert Colonel Erran Morad. It was widely agreed as the most successful and savage use of a character to satirise and reveal some shocking attitudes.

“Baron Cohen is playing every side’s worst nightmare”
Randall Colburn, The AV Club

Vulture’s Jen Chaney said the character was “striking because it casts Baron Cohen’s character as the straight man while his interview subjects unwittingly provide all the ‘jokes’”.

In the AV Club, Randall Colburn observed a shift in the comedian’s comic vocabulary. In the characters that worked, he said, “Baron Cohen is playing every side’s worst nightmare”.

He adds: “What’s so markedly different about Who Is America? is that, aside from Rick Sherman, Baron Cohen’s new characters are anything but innocent. They’re biased, aggressive, and equipped with a fierce, partisan agenda. The level of irresponsibility is absolutely staggering, which, unlike Da Ali G Show, gives Who Is America? some genuine stakes.”

For Colburn, the sketch “utterly dwarfs everything that came before it”. He lamented that much of the rest was simply not funny enough, with Baron Cohen “pursuing particular rabbit holes for too long”.

But he acknowledged: “Who Is America? is here to frame the powerful in ways we haven’t yet seen. In this shameless era of Trump, that’s a feat unto itself.”

Chaney agreed: “Doing what Sacha Baron Cohen is trying to do in this fraught climate is really tricky, and my instinct tells me it won’t work more often than it does. Still, as a viewer who senses that the standard attempts to poke fun at our Trumpian political culture already feel played out, I’m intrigued to watch how he navigates this minefield.

“When Who Is America? is on point, as it is in the “Kill or Be Killed” segment, it doesn’t just remind us that some of our emperors have no clothes. It exposes them for walking around naked with no sense of shame whatsoever.”

Entertainment Weekly’s Darran Franich perhaps best summed up the mood from across the Atlantic when he described the show as “hit or miss with big laughs and long humourless pauses”.

He added: “The basic structure is familiar, a bit tired. the most profound feeling you get from the show is weariness. Baron Cohen’s haphazard comedy instincts feel topical in the worst way. Some politicians said crazy things on television? That’s not strange anymore. It’s mandatory.”

  • Who Is America? airs in the US on Showtime on Sunday nights for the next seven weeks. It begins on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm