NEW YORK (AP) - The provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen has rebooted his ambush chat show and before any judgment is made about the wisdom of that decision, you have to admire the sheer perseverance of not only the host but also his so-called guests.
Fifteen years after the British comedian leapt to America as an unknown cultural trip-wire to punk everyone from Donald Trump to Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, he’s still befuddling folks who should really know better.
The first episode of Showtime’s “Who Is America?” somehow snared former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and former Republican senator Trent Lott, neither apparently too savvy to sit opposite a dubious dude who is either spectacularly ill-informed or perfectly like-minded.
The first episode - the only one Showtime allowed journalists to talk about - follows Baron Cohen’s tested formula: Create a bunch of off-the-wall characters with prosthetics and accents then set them loose on the unsuspecting public, either wing-tipped or rednecked. Truth be told, the second episode of “Who Is America?” is better than the first, with the upcoming humiliations of some public figures absolutely astounding.
On “Da Ali G Show” from 2000-2004, Baron Cohen played a dim, wannabe gangster; an anti-Semitic correspondent from Kazakhstan; and a gay Austrian reporter. This time, his characters include a far right-wing moron; a gung-ho Israeli anti-terrorism teacher; an ultra-liberal who cycles around in a ponytail and an NPR T-shirt; and an ex-con skinhead with a biker beard.
Over two episodes, the show proves uneven - best when it toys with those in power and less so when it goes for a cheap laugh from the frivolous. A trip by his left-wing character to a fancy candlelit dinner with staunch conservatives in South Carolina felt flat in comparison to the sheer mischief Baron Cohen gets into as the Israeli character when trying to get gun-rights advocates to endorse his notion of arming preschoolers.
That’s always been the genius of Baron Cohen’s format: seeing how far he can coax someone down the rabbit hole. This time, he gets grown, intelligent - and sometimes elected - men to back a fictional program called Kindergardians, in which kids as young as 4 are trained to shoot guns decorated as stuffed animals (like the “Uzi-corn” or the “Dino-gun”).
So we get the sight of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, former Rep. Joe Walsh and the twin gun rights activists Larry Pratt, of Gun Owners of America, and Philip Van Cleave, of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, duped into parroting prepared text on a teleprompter that “first-graders make good first-grenaders” and aiming a gun at the screen while singing a twisted version of the nursery song, namely “Head, Shoulders, Not the Toes, Not the Toes.”
Showtime has been tight-lipped about the seven-episode series, to the point of asking journalists who see the show to sign non-disclosure agreements and place their...