In July 1961, scientists told 40 New Haven men to administer electric shocks to other men. The shocks they ordered increased in voltage: all of the participants continued to 300 volts; 65 percent dealt the most powerful shock, 450 volts, labelled “XXX.”
The participants in Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment proved a dismal point: people are willing to obey authority figures even when they receive orders that conflict with their moral judgements.
Milgram and his team told the subjects to think of themselves as teachers, inflicting electric shocks on volunteers to help them complete a memory task. In reality, the volunteers were actors, and the electric shocks were not real.
Shockingly, the “teachers” discarded their moral intuitions and values almost immediately when they were given unethical instructions by authority figures. Even as the actors screamed and cried for help, the subjects continued to administer the fake electric shocks.
Fifty-seven years later, actor and producer Sacha Baron Cohen unintentionally gives us an imperfect yet staggering replication of Milgram’s work. Cohen’s Showtime series, Who Is America?, provides an uncomfortable, candid exposé of the American psyche by showing how easily humans are manipulated. While the Milgram Experiment revealed participants’ willingness to administer electric shocks to others, Who Is America? exposes how easily participants will blindly shock themselves–as well as the institutions they represent and, most importantly, their own nation.
Cohen is famous for using a set of absurd personalities to trick unsuspecting public figures into embarrassing themselves on camera. After rising to fame on The 11 O’Clock Show (1998), he soon launched Da Ali G Show (2000), in which he notoriously pranked President Donald Trump into supporting the creation of drippage-stopping “ice cream gloves.” Next, Cohen released Borat (2006), a comedic mockumentary of American culture, which gained renown for exposing the veiled racism in unsuspecting Americans, denouncing everyone from three University of Southern California frat bros to an entire Virginia rodeo crowd. In addition to his most well-known roles, Cohen has portrayed the flamboyant Austrian fashionista Brüno in the eponymous 2009 film and Admiral General Aladeen, a dictator attempting to safeguard his nation’s authoritarian regime, in The Dictator (2012). The recipient of numerous awards—including two BAFTA awards (both in 2001), a Golden Globe for Best Actor (2007), an MTV Movie Award for Best Comedic Performance (2007), and the British Outstanding Achievement Award (2013)—Cohen even headlined Harvard’s 2004 commencement as Ali G.
From the outset of Who Is America?, Cohen argues that viewers should be conscious of blind idealizations of the United States. The show’s introductory sequence begins with a montage of Americana: scenes of John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural addresses, Jackie Robinson stealing home plate, and Ronald Reagan’s “Tear down this wall!” speech. Toward the end of the sequence, the clips devolve into chaos: DJ Shub interjects with his frenzied and hyperactive “Indomitable,” while President Trump abruptly enters the scene and mocks a reporter with a disability by faking a seizure.
In some ways, the sequence also mocks the depictions of American individualism and greatness that preceded Trump’s antics. Through this stark contrast, Cohen thrusts us back into reality, criticizing our selective attention to America’s best features while whiting out and absolving ourselves of responsibility for its worst.
To uncover these hypocrisies, Cohen poses as a series of characters, each meant to dupe his interviewees into exposing—for better or worse—their true selves. He cycles through the identities of Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., Ph.D., a far-right conspiracy theorist and cultural commentator; Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a proudly apologetic, white, cisgender, heterosexual, liberal journalist for NPR; Rick Sherman, a British ex-con artist and producer; Erran Morad, an authoritative Israeli anti-terrorism expert; Gio Monaldo, the Dan Bilzerian of Italian playboy-photographers; and OMGWhizzBoyOMG!, a Finnish YouTuber. In this one-sided game, by strategically embodying different characters and adopting the particular qualities and beliefs that best elicit information, Cohen sneakily gains the upper-hand.
Consider the following scene: Cohen, under the guise of Gio Monaldo, guides former Bachelorette prima donna, Corinne Olympios, into concocting a story about her monthlong charitable work in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis.
Leaning forward as the coattails of his blazer spill out from his director’s chair, Cohen-as-Gio rhythmically moves his hands. Taken separately, each part of his outfit screams “imposter”—the white blazer with pink shorts, the overabundance of bracelets around his arm, and the cross that hangs down to his waistline like a tie. Regarded as a whole, however, his outfit looks so outlandish that it must be real–the artistic genius of someone who has transcended stylistic rules.
“How long were you in Sierra Leone fighting this Ebola crisis?” Gio asks.
Awkwardly picking at her nail polish, Olympios glances around the room before nervously fixing her eyes on Gio. “Um…” She momentarily hesitates. “I was there for about a week.”
“Oh, amazing!” Gio quickly responds. “It’s great!” he adds, unable in these last words to resist blending pseudo-Italian and Wadiyan, the native tongue of Admiral General Aladeen from The Dictator.
The camera slowly zooms in on Olympios’s stoic face, keeping Gio’s exaggerated gestures in the periphery. Lowering his volume while accelerating his tempo, Gio replies, “Is it possible to say you were there for a month? Because the thing was about three months. So…”
Almost immediately, Olympios breaks from her expressionless look—the viewer hoping she will refuse to be complicit in Gio’s devilish fairytale. With a sense of gravity, she chimes in, “O.K. Yeah, but they’re gonna know that I wasn’t there.”
Gio reassures her. She need not worry: he “runs the charity” she would claim she’d been working for. Olympios straightens in her chair and nods, looks into his eyes, and tells him she was “there for about a month.”
Time and again, Cohen bends his interviewees to his will—from Olympios to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who confessed to ordering torture, to former Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer, who screamed the N-word.
Though viewers routinely condemn Cohen’s interviewees, the grand irony of the show lies in viewers’ failure to recognize their own complicity. Like an episode of Black Mirror, the show implicates its viewership as much as its subjects.
Consider a concrete example: an NPR writer named Linda Holmes criticized Cohen’s portrayal of Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, the NPR journalist, for being an overused, and therefore unamusing, caricature of leftist identity politics. “I’m sorry to say that these indeed are the jokes, folks,” she writes.
In her criticism, Holmes joined the ranks of public figures whose sense of humor, with its thousand-yard restraining order on jokes like the ones in Who is America?, Cohen wishes to caricature. Without formally interviewing Holmes, Cohen achieves exactly that. She falls for his bait.
Holmes is not alone. Viewers endlessly prey on the character flaws of Cohen’s victims. Are Cohen’s viewers watching in good faith, or do they watch to validate themselves? Do they want to do good deeds, or do they just want to distance themselves from bad ones?
In the Milgram Experiment, “authority figures” manipulated average citizens to inflict pain on their peers. In Who Is America?, Cohen takes the experiment further, placing American political and cultural elite in the hot seat, and, in doing so, implicating the viewer, too. In Cohen’s eyes, it’s not just average Americans—the Kingsman Arizonans, the underground rappers, the independent art curators—that blindly follow authority; it’s also the Cheneys and the Spencers. From start to finish, Cohen’s satire is spectacularly uncomfortable because its message is so clear: that you can look like Kennedy on paper while acting like Trump in the locker room; that America can be presidential while also being deplorable; that you, the viewer, could be next.