Minutes into the first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new series Who Is America? the comedian, disguised as a gender studies lecturer, tries to provoke dinner table conversation by saying his partner practises bestiality with dolphins.
Baron Cohen’s character, Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, is being hosted by an unsuspecting Trump-voting couple who have pushed the boat out for their guest with china, silverware and hospitality.
They are rewarded by Baron Cohen telling them not just about partner Naomi’s love of the life aquatic, but about how he has “compliance cameras” at home to make sure his son – Harvey Milk – urinates sitting down and daughter, Malala, standing up.
Malala, he adds, has started menstruating and they encourage her to free bleed on an American flag until it looks like a Chinese one, as part of a program supported by the Clinton Foundation.
The Republican couple, Jane Page Thompson and husband Mark Thompson, is unfailingly polite: “How does one compete with … a sea mammal?”
It’s unclear if the comedian’s aim is to be funny or provide social commentary or political satire, but after a 10-year hiatus from TV, Baron Cohen provides anything but laughs or insights.
His scenarios are vulgar, uncomfortable and largely pointless. Far from being a devastating insight in the age of Trump, Who is America? mostly serves to prove that Baron Cohen is puerile and about as subtle as an anvil.
If you find it funny, good luck. But there’s not much art in picking out soft targets and pushing them until the penny drops, then hoping they’ll react.
Note to Baron Cohen: if you want to prank people, Australia’s Norman Gunston was lauded for it because he never relied on being mean spirited or astonishingly, childishly gross.
The most impressive thing about the show is that it’s a victory for makeup. The facial latex is next level.
But back to Baron Cohen and his retinue of new alter egos.
His interview subjects are willing, according to Sarah Palin, herself a victim, because the interview approaches seemed above board.
The show’s first guest, 2016 Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders, was grilled by the Borat star as Billy Wayne Ruddick from a fictional truth-finding organisation.
The segment is brief because a composed and suspicious Mr Sanders wouldn’t play along, even when “Mr Ruddick” says he would “prefer to be anally raped rather than give one more dollar to the treasury”.
Baron Cohen probably didn’t put much work into the former would-be presidential candidate because he wasn’t really a target for his venom, rather just there to balance the scales between the Democrats and Republican targets.
Enter a retinue of pro-gun spokespeople who believe they are talking to Israeli anti-terror expert Colonel Erran Morad, who is pushing a proposal to arm kindergarten children.
This segment takes up most of the episode because it is mining a rich vein – right wingers who love firearms. Thing is, he probably wouldn’t have needed to trick them into spouting their views.
Baron Cohen gets Philip van Cleave, the president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, to sing an appalling tune instructing three and four-year-olds how to shoot bad guys.
He also captures van Cleave, who needs little encouragement to participate in what many would see as abhorrent, to respond to a rape joke with a long laugh and a handshake.
Baron Cohen tries to give audiences a sly wink (“Hey, isn’t this fun making these idiots spout nonsense?”) by having his pro-gun guests read a statement that includes pop culture references to Blink 182 and Wiz Khalifa.
The world already knows there are hundreds of thousands of people who believe guns in the hands of children are a good idea. Baron Cohen’s ‘sting’ as the episode’s highlight shows he’s out of step and his humour hasn’t moved on. We get it, rednecks exist.
Perhaps his most hideous gag is directed at California art consultant Christy. In the guise of reformed convict Rick Sherman, he shows her paintings done on cardboard and says they’re done with his faeces and ejaculate.
Christy is punished for being positive and naive. Baron Cohen ducks off to release more septic fluids and presents them to her in the form of a portrait.
Showed a paintbrush Baron Cohen says is made up of pubic hairs from artists including Damien Hirst and Banksy, Christy volunteers to pluck her own sample, and is seen from behind, hunched over, dress hiked up around her thighs.
Republican fan Mark Thompson has the last, most incisive word. Asked by a producer how he would describe his mystery dinner guest’s value system, he asks if he can be honest: “Fu—d up”.
You got it.
Who is America? is available on Stan