The security for Showtimes advance screening of Sacha Baron Cohens new half-hour series, Who Is America, was patently ridiculous. In order to catch a glimpse of the already-controversial new series, I had to agree to strict embargo language and lock my phone away for the duration of the screening—even though conservative politicians including Roy Moore and Sarah Palin had already revealed that they are featured in the show, in expressions of comical dismay at being the targets and not the perpetrators of a media disinformation campaign, for once. In the days leading up to the premiere, other participants stepped forward, including, best of all, unimpressed and unruffled former news anchor Ted Koppel.
Yet during the screening, security guards did not only patrol the audience. At various points, such as when former Vice President Dick Cheney was on screen, they trained actual night-vision goggles on the audience—checking, we were told, to see if an attendee was surreptitiously filming the production. Elements of Cheneys segment had already been used as promotional material for the show—including the most shocking moment, when the former VP autographs an empty gallon jug that Cohen calls a “waterboard kit.”
Id never been surveilled with night-vision goggles before—at least, not to my knowledge—so I was a bit preoccupied with the glinting flash of lenses trained on me during Who Is America, a flimsy little prank show heavily stocked with sexual innuendo and scatological humor. It was hard not to wonder if the screening itself was a prank; if, like the targets of Who Is Americas trolling, we were about to discover exactly what we had consented to.
That frisson of fear between the conflicting desires to keep the peace and to make a scene is where Cohen thrives. The British comedian is best known as his personae—especially hip-hop poseur Ali G and Kazakh anti-Semite Borat. Who Is America showcases a handful of Cohens 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 theyre being duped. The two episodes of Who Is America screened for critics made for one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences Ive had—a rollercoaster that takes the viewer from pained, proxy humiliation for Cohens doofiest targets to righteous, triumphant satisfaction at seeing a bad guy eat shit. The Herculean efforts Cohen undergoes in order to entrap, fool, or insult his targets are both a little exhausting and a little pointless—but I cant deny that Who Is America is funny, too, once you get past the shock and squirming horror.
The first episode, which is the only one I can discuss under the terms of Showtimes embargo, lays out the general format of Who Is America. Cohen and his writers set up their pranks like elaborate, one-sided theatrical performances—complete with rigorous costuming and makeup, props, and pre-determined lines. One is a media-suspicious Trump supporter in an electric wheelchair named Billy Wayne Ruddick, Jr., Ph.D. who approaches Senator Bernie Sanders with the opposite of the “lie-brary,” the “truthbrary.” Another is “ex-Mossad/not-Mossad” “anti-terrorist expert” Errad Morad, who spends his segment peddling a radical new approach to stopping school shootings: arming four-year-olds. The final minutes are devoted to showcasing current and former GOP lawmakers—like Trent Lott, Dana Rohrabacher, Joe Walsh, and Joe Wilson—lending their on-camera endorsement to Errans initiative to train four- to 12-year-olds with military-grade weaponry.
Who Is America is Cohens most political effort yet, and underneath the comedy is at least some interest in discomfiting the powerful. But its a fools errand to read much into the ideology or slant of his approach. Cohen is an expert troll—which means ultimately, in the moment of the con, nothing matters except the lulz. Cohen takes advantage of the ways in which his targets pity, or at least give latitude to, his characters; that one is a disabled man in a motorized wheelchair, and another is an ex-con trying to reintegrate into society, indicate unsportsmanlike manipulation of his targets, less truth-seeking than setting booby-traps.
But rather amusingly, Cohen does have the integrity to include sketches in which his carefully laid plans go awry. Koppel divulged the details of one to the Hollywood Reporter. Another is in the first episode, when Cohens character Rick Sherman—an ex-con who paints with his poop—tries to sell his art to a high-end but stuffy gallery. Cohen rather gleefully humiliates the poor, patient woman who talks to him, who is not the snob he expected, but a sympathetic ear. Naturally, he makes a fool of her—but by the end, Cohen seems to be harboring some strangled respect for the gallerist. He seems amazed that she is still tolerating his awful doublespeak about using ejaculate and blood from being raped as materials for his art. Still, that doesnt stop the shows heavy editing from zooming in, close, to establish just how credulous her generosity makes her.
In this moment of heightened focus on inclusion in Hollywood, it's remarkable that according to the screened episodes, there are no female writers on Who Is Americas staff. The first episode, now streaming on Showtime, credits 10 writers and six executive producers; all are men. It's quite a spectrum. On one hand is the great Nathan Fielder, a writer on Who Is America's second episode, whose humane Comedy Central series, Nathan For You, has radically redefined how reality TV can feel and look for the laypeople involved. On the other is the comic Kurt Metzger, a stand-up and former writer for Inside Amy Schumer who had a public, sexist meltdown in 2016 after a colleague was accused of sexual assault.
With his new show, Cohen is re-entering the game of professional trolling—a landscape he pioneered more than 15 years ago. We hardly need more reminders these days that everything is terrible, or that the highest echelons of power in this country have been altered by, and in several cases, occupied by, trolling of the highest order. Cohens work is the kind that announces itself with great fanfare—politicians ruffled, lawsuits threatened, ridiculous behavior committed on-camera. It seizes the viewer by uncannily locating ones vulnerable, childish notions of politesse and civility. But Who Is America only presents its targets, both venal and sympathetic, with one real option: to be the butt of the shows slippery humor.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:The Celebrities Who Have Impressively Kept Their Babies a Secret
Eva Mendes and Ryan Gosling
Gosling and Mendes managed to keep her first pregnancy hidden for seven months. There was no official announcement when their daughter Esmeralda Amada was born in September 2014, although TMZ did obtain a copy of her birth certificate. Mendes gave a low-key interview about motherhood that November.
The couple also managed to keep the impending arrival of their second daughter under wraps almost until she was born. Once again, the news broke when TMZ discovered Amada Lee Goslings birth certificate. Gosling confirmed that he is, indeed, the father of two daughters while doing press for The Nice Guys, but he wouldnt speak about it at length. He also thanked Mendes and his daughters during his 2017 Golden Globes acceptance speech.Photo: By Dave Allocca/StarPix/REX/Shutterstock.
Glover confirmed that hed welcomed a son during his 2017 Golden Globes acceptance speech for Best Actor—Television Series Musical or Comedy, although he has yet to confirm his sons mothers identity. “I really want to say thank you to my son, and the mother of my son for making me believe in people again, and things being possible,” Glover said.Photo: By Joe Scarnici/Getty Images..
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys
News about The Americans costars first child broke when sources told various media outlets they were expecting. Russells pregnancy was really confirmed by their co-star Noah Emmerich, who talked to Entertainment Tonight about the show having to shoot around her bump. She also mentioned this in The New York Times. The couple was so low-key about their impending baby, though, that no one really thought to check in to see if it had actually arrived. It wasnt until Rhys and Russell were spotted in Brooklyn carrying their newborn—which is an excellent way for low-key, stealth baby parents to give paparazzi their fill while sending them the message that this is all theyre going to get (see also: Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale)—that the press thought to check in about that whole “Did she have the baby?” matter. Confirmed: She did.Photo: By Taylor Hill/Getty Images.
Vincent Kartheiser and Alexis Bledel
If Kartheiser and Bledel, one of the most private celebrity couples out there, had their way, we would have never found out about their baby at all. It only came out when Bledels Gilmore Girls co-star Scott Patterson let it slip during an interview with Glamour that the actress is now a mother. The couple confirmed to People that they welcomed a son last fall, and that “no further details are being released.”Photo: By Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher
Spotlight-eschewing couple Baron Cohen and Fisher have three children, and by the time Fisher was pregnant with their third, the only way word got around was when she pulled out of her role in Now You See Me 2. It was only confirmed that their baby had entered the world when the no-longer-pregnant Fisher attended a party in April 2015.Photo: By Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images.
Simon Konecki and Adele
Adele was slightly more up front about her pregnancy than the rest of the celebrities on this list. She personally announced she was expecting in a post on her blog in June 2012, most likely to stave off the months of invasive paparazzi and intense speculation. “[P]lease respect our privacy at this precious time,” the singer wrote. She then remained out of the public eye for most of her pregnancy. It was up to a good ol anonymous source to tell the press that shed given birth to a son.Photo: By Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock.
Kerry Washington and Nnamdi Asomugha
Kerry Washington is amazing at keeping details of personal life a secret. One might even say that theyre . . . handled. She covertly married football player Nnamdi Asomugha in July 2013. Washington kept her first pregnancy concealed until she was about four months along, when a stint on S.N.L. made it hard to hide. She says we shouldnt expect to see pictures of her daughter Isabelle, who was born in 2014, anytime soon.
As of May 2016, its rumored that Washington is expecting her second baby. In her typical stealth fashion, however, shes just smiling and heading out on red carpets with strategically placed clutches.
Photo: By David X Prutting/BFA/REX/Shutterstock.PreviousNext
Sonia SaraiyaSonia Saraiya is Vanity Fair's television critic. Previously she was at Variety, Salon, and The A.V. Club. She lives in New York.