Entertainment

Sacha Baron Cohen Returns to His Borat Roots in New Comedy Series 'Who Is America?'

who is america kinderguardians
SHOWTIME

"The only thing to stop a bad man with a gun is a good boy with a gun," Sacha Baron Cohen says, several layers of prosthetics deep as "the terrorist Terminator" Colonel Erran Morad, on his new show Who Is America? Morad is pitching a program called Kinderguardians that would arm "specially selected children" in schools, and he finds plenty of willing supporters. "Or a toddler!" his guest, gun lobbyist Larry Pratt, responds like he was riffing with one of the leading thinkers of gun rights in our modern times.

Baron Cohen's latest TV venture, which premiered July 15 on Showtime, needed little press hype to get fans excited about his latest undercover provocation. In early July, tastemakers of modern conservatism -- like the "right winging, bitter clinging, proud clingers of our guns, our god, and our religion" Sarah Palin, former Arizona sheriff and proud racist Joe Arapaio, and disgraced Alabama Senate hopeful Roy Moore -- began preemptively issuing statements that they had been duped by the British comedian. Their supporters came out in droves with memes ablazing to condemn Baron Cohen for misrepresenting his intentions. Unsurprisingly, the first episode did not disappoint, mostly thanks to the final segment about the Kinderguardians.

Putting on an absurd (and patently fake) Israeli accent, Baron Cohen's "anti-terrorism expert" visited gun rights advocates to help him promote his farcical initiative in America, which would arm children as young as 3 in schools. He recruited Philip "[semi-automatic weapons] are a blast to shoot" Van Cleave of Virginia Citizen's Defense League to star in an instructional video on how to "stop naughty men and have them take a long nap" by "feeding your Puppy Pistol" and using a (fake) line of toy pets called Gunimals, ranging from the magical Uzicorn ("for girls!") to the Best Firearm Forever teddy bear.

With the video done, Baron Cohen interviews Larry Pratt in Washington and meets with other current and former members of Congress whom Pratt thinks would be amenable to supporting the initiative in earnest. Though Florida representative Matt Gaetz, who has an A+ rating from the NRA and called to arm teachers after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, declined, plenty of other Republican lawmakers read the pro-Kinderguardians script on camera: former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott who resigned in 2002 after doubling down on support for segregation; Dana Rohrabacher, climate skeptic and regurgitator of conspiracy theories peddled on Infowars; Joe Wilson, who became famous for interrupting Obama's speech to Congress on health care; and former representative/current right-wing radio host Joe Walsh, who got kicked off the air for saying a bunch of racist slurs under the guise of "having a discussion."

The moment Baron Cohen's bit turns from good grift to masterpiece is when Pratt outlines "the proven science" behind the program, oblivious to any of the cultural markers peppered throughout the monologue. "At age 4, a child processes images 80% faster than an adult. Meaning that essentially, like owls, they can see in slow motion. Children under 5 also have elevated levels of a pheromone known as Blink-182 produced by the part of the liver known as the Rita Ora. This allows nerve reflexes to travel along the Cardi B neural pathway to the Wiz Khalifa 40% faster, saving time and saving lives."

The episode's earlier sketches don't stick the landing as well as Kinderguardians -- the opening scene with Bernie Sanders falls flat outside a few moments when Sanders' controlled frustration with Baron Cohen's trolly Truthbrary.org character bubble to the surface, and a dinner party with a Donald Trump delegate and her husband feels mostly meandering against Cohen's stereotypical NPR-loving liberal. But, regardless of what you think of the comedian's methods and the effectiveness of Who Is America?'s first episode, it would probably be a mistake to stop paying attention before seeing everything Sacha Baron Cohen has in store for the rest of the season. 

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Leanne Butkovic is an entertainment editor at Thrillist.