Donald Glover declared “This Is America,” and now comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is asking us to consider “Who is America?” in his new Showtime series. Judging by the 10-minute long preview, shared ahead of Sunday night’s debut episode, his answer is even more disturbing than we could have imagined. Who Is America? promises to show us America’s worst impulses — from gun control to hyperpartisan politics. Notable figures like Sarah Palin, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and disgraced Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore make an appearance, if accidental.
Cohen’s comedy is known for his character acting. His characters interact with unwitting volunteers, offering a twisted commentary on topical issues. Clearly, there is no shortage of topical issues in today’s political climate — or people willing to talk about. Who Is America? opens with a commentary on gun violence in schools. The pro-gun lobby has floated ideas of arming teachers; Cohen, in the guise of an Israeli anti terrorism expert, gets Philip Van Cleave of the Virginia Citizen’s Defense League to openly postulate about arming small children. “They haven’t learn right from wrong yet,” says Van Cleave. “They could be very effective soldiers.”
If that isn’t stomach-churning enough, a segment takes a darker turn through Cohen’s sly earnestness. Larry Pratt, who is the executive director of a gun lobby, laughs himself into a beet-red face when Cohen jokes about spousal rape. Politicians, like former congressman (and alleged child support deadbeat) Joe Walsh and former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, are duped into appearing in a PSA about the benefits of teaching children to shoot guns. Guns belong in the hands of everyone, argues Lott, even teachers or “highly-trained preschoolers.”
Never mind that young people are being killed at school. While dining at restaurants. In their own homes. For these political figures, guns are the answer to gun violence. And as Cohen shows us, there is no position too extreme that they wouldn’t advocate in order to promote their $42.9 billion industry.
And this is just the first episode of the show.
Cohen has long used comedy as a mirror. By fooling average and famous people, he reflects back to us our grossest instincts, our most embarrassing truths. Borat, a fictional Kazakh reporter, was another Cohen creation in 2006. In the fake documentary of the same name, Cohen-as-Borat played into post-9/11 Islamophobia, screaming, “May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child of Iraq" at a Western rodeo, to the cheers of the audience. Who is America? promises to do the same. After all, these are not fringe American beliefs. These are real attitudes, from people in our communities. Maybe confronting them with their own repulsiveness is the only way they will listen.