It is, by all accounts, a startling clip. A vaguely recognisable offscreen voice asks “Is it possible to sign my waterboard kit?” Then Dick Cheney – the real Dick Cheney – replies with a chirpy “Sure!”. After scrawling his name on a beaten-up bottle, he gleefully declares “That’s the first time I’ve ever signed a waterboard!” Ladies and gentlemen, Sacha Baron Cohen is back.
Baron Cohen’s new series, Who is America?, feels like an ambush. Announced just this week, it premieres in the UK and the US less than a week from now. Very little is known about Who is America? and that’s possibly for good reason. It promises to “explore the diverse individuals, from the infamous to the unknown across the political and cultural spectrum, who populate the unique nation”. Its billing as “the most dangerous show in the history of television” makes it sound less of a programme and more of a prison-yard shanking. The secrecy, you imagine, is likely due to the high-profile targets and the viciousness with which they are going to be taken down.
The first anybody knew about the series was when Baron Cohen posted a video addressed to Donald Trump on Independence Day. Baron Cohen’s Twitter bio is the following Trump quote: “They should have pummelled him (Baron Cohen) to the ground. It would have been great.” All signs suggest that Trump is squarely in Baron Cohen’s crosshairs, and it’s personal. Even if it ends up misfiring, Who is America? is going to be must-watch television.
It couldn’t come at a better time for the comic, either. This sort of thing – undercover, disguised, drawing out unwitting prejudices – is absolutely what he does best. It is astute and it is cruel and it is merciless. Nothing hits quite has hard when it is being used to make a point about the state of the world.
But it’s also designed to self-destruct on impact; as soon as Baron Cohen finds any kind of success with one approach, the jig is already up. Ali G stopped being a feasible vessel the second he appeared on television, for the simple reason that he was too instantly recognisable. It was the same with Borat. Bruno didn’t even make it that far, since by that point Baron Cohen was far too famous to get under the skin of his victims [ . . . ]