Sacha Baron Cohen's American Nightmare - NBC 10 Philadelphia

Sacha Baron Cohen's American Nightmare

The "Borat" star's "Who is America?" prank show caps a television season that's been more painful than funny – which may be the point

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    Sacha Baron Cohen's American Nightmare
    Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File
    This March 4, 2018, file photo shows Sacha Baron Cohen arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills, Calif.

    The most recent episode of Sacha Baron Cohen's "Who is America?" reached a meta level of bad taste.

    Cohen, posing as a former-inmate-turned-gourmet-chef, got a food critic to eat what was billed as the flesh of a Chinese dissident (“It’s melting on my palate”).

    It marked perhaps the most disturbing moment yet for a program in which Cohen, playing a mega-macho Israel anti-terrorism expert, previously convinced a gun rights advocate to bite on a sex toy during a bogus training exercise. Cohen used a similar ruse to entice a Georgia politician to variously drop his pants, mock a Chinese accent and shout the N-word. (Republican state lawmaker Jason Spencer resigned after the episode aired.)

    On Sunday, the Showtime series tackling the divided Trump Era U.S. caps an inaugural season that's often proven more painful than funny – which may be the point.

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    Sure, the "Borat" star sparked controversy by fooling the likes of former Vice President Dick Cheney (who autographed a waterboarding kit), Sen. Bernie Sanders (who could barely contain his exasperation during a fuzzy math lesson on the “one percent”) and failed Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore (whom Cohen's Israeli character examined with a beeping "pedophile detector").

    But the heavily disguised comedian's bigger trick may have come in exposing abhorrent behavior by lesser-known characters, who revealed, at best, a willingness to do anything to be on television.

    Cohen introduced some unappealing characters of his own, including a malaprop-spewing right-wing conspiracy nut, a hyper-PC liberal loon and a libidinous Italian fashion photographer, who got D-list celebrities to pose for green-screened glamour shots of them aiding the desperately poor.

    The elaborate trickery blurs traditional bounds of satire. Yet Cohen's approach both mimics and skewers the phoniness pulsing through Reality TV.

    It's unclear whether Sunday's episode will include Cohen's reported undercover interview with former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who called his humor “evil, exploitative, sick” after learning she’d been duped.

    Palin, it's worth noting, jumped from the 2008 GOP ticket to the Reality TV carousel. Donald Trump made the opposite journey to the highest office in the land.

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    In 2003, Cohen’s British hip-hop fan alter ego, Ali G, interviewed a pre-"Apprentice" Trump, pitching him an idea about gloves for ice cream eaters.

    Some nine years later, the future president declared himself “the only person who immediately walked out of my ‘Ali G’ interview.” The segment broadcast shows Trump bolting after a little over 1 minute, 40 seconds. Cohen has said the unedited interview went on for about seven minutes.

    Now that's something to chew on.

    Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.