Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? created quite the buzz leading up to its release, with prominent conservative politicians reacting with outrage as they realized Cohen was effectively pranking them.
The series premiere is now streaming on Showtime (free for a limited time), and in true Cohen fashion, it’s got people talking.
Showtime hosted a screening of the first episode before its release, and it impacted Cohen’s comedy peers.
Here’s what some critics thought.
Cohen’s shtick is a kind of performance art, built around just how far he can push his subjects, whose instincts to walk away or yell “cut” are curbed by the fact that they’re being interviewed on camera…Cohen’s ability to adlib in character has always been his greatest gift, even if it’s tempting to wince at times at his excesses, which can tend to place a higher priority on discomfort than comedy.
Shame was the secret ingredient in Da Ali G Show, the obstacle that had to be circumvented to make us believe that the effort Cohen put into devising characters, picking his targets and insinuating himself into their lives on-camera was worth the trouble.
Shame is the missing ingredient in Cohen’s Who Is America? and, unfortunately, it’s not an ingredient that proves merely incidental. It’s the difference between shocking and not shocking, between hilarious and simply fleetingly funny.
But the real nostalgia is for Borat’s era, the comparatively low-stakes idyll of the Bush administration’s tail end…Much has transpired since then, and Cohen knows it. He’s unabashedly political in his aspirations for this program, attempting to define an American identity by interviewing its wild and woolly citizens. The implication here, as with all comedy that dares to skew political in the year 2018, is that this is urgent work for an urgent moment.
Who Is America showcases a handful of Cohen’s new characters in his signature style of elaborate, improvisational, ideologically fraught pranks. Every set piece snaps with uneasy tension, as Cohen tries to get away with more and more, and the audience waits to see if the target will figure out that they’re being duped. The two episodes of Who Is America screened for critics made for one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I’ve had—a rollercoaster that takes the viewer from pained, proxy humiliation for Cohen’s doofiest targets to righteous, triumphant satisfaction at seeing a bad guy eat shit
The NDA is up on so I would like to say that the gun-related segment in the premiere of the new Sacha Baron Cohen show is some truly wild shit
— Patrick Monahan (@pattymo) July 15, 2018
A lot of shock comedy depends on a blunt, harsh power dynamic…But there’s a rewarding feeling of discovery here, too. The funniest bits in the second segment belong to the conservative man, a droll Leslie Jordan-a-like who’s politely horrified by Cohen’s antics. You forget how funny it is to see someone be politely horrified.