Who is America? Who cares?

sacha baron cohen who is america erran morad showtime trump jason spencer corrinne olympios oj simpson bernie sanders who cares review criticism

The most damning flaw of Who is America?, of course, is that it ultimately says very little; for a satire advertised as “the most dangerous show in history”, it lands few punches, and enjoys no meaningful success in its efforts to reveal some broader truth about the increasingly divided cultural identity of the United States.

Very few of the sketches are as trenchant or as incisive as Baron Cohen presumably thinks; most illustrate little more than people’s surprising willingness to remain polite in the face of exaggerated caricatures. These segments are awkward at best – the most obvious example being the dinner party in the first episode, where two Republican election agents and Trump supporters hosted Baron Cohen’s liberal caricature Dr Nira Cain-N’Degeocello as he told them about his wife’s affair with a dolphin – but at worst feel like genuine missed opportunities. When Baron Cohen interviewed former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders under the guise of Billy Wayne Ruddick, a right-wing commentator in the vein of an Infowars style conspiracy theorist, it amounted to little more than farce: ‘Ruddick’ asks Sanders why, if he “believes in equality“, he doesn’t “move the 99% into the 1%“, leaving the senator clearly baffled, but still making an attempt to humour Ruddick.

It’s difficult to work out what, exactly, this is supposed to say about the state of America – it’s not clear what questions are even being posed. Sanders is far from beyond reproach as a politician and a potential presidential hopeful for 2020, and it’s not hard to think of ways to criticise or question him through a character like Ruddick; Baron Cohen’s ‘Truthbrary’ correspondent could’ve supported Sanders’ record on gun control, perhaps, or thanked Sanders for the part he arguably played in getting Trump elected. Either would have offered potential for a more vigorous examination of Sanders’ place in the American zeitgeist; indeed, anything would’ve been an improvement over what actually took place.

There’s something more discomforting, though, about Baron Cohen’s non-political sketches – something that highlights not just a weakness to his satire, but a genuine moral failing. Consider his efforts, as fashion photographer Gio Monaldo, to convince reality TV star Corinne Olympios to claim she went to Sierra Leone to fight Ebola and stop a massacre; what was presumably intended to be cutting commentary on celebrity culture, portraying Olympios as vapid and vacuous, is ultimately much more damning of Baron Cohen himself. Setting aside the fact that Olympios’ later account of what happened makes it clear the sketch was essentially tantamount to entrapment, and ignoring the fact that the reality TV star Baron Cohen felt was so deserving of criticism is also the one perhaps most famous for being sexually assaulted on The Bachelor, the implication that Baron Cohen thinks Olympios is in any way morally equivalent to the likes of Jason Spencer says far more about him that it does her.

But then, of course, that was always the problem with Who is America? – it’s a programme without any perspective, reduced to making broad, sprawling criticisms that are little more than fumbling swipes because it isn’t working from a meaningfully defined moral position of its own. Of course it doesn’t say anything, of course this supposedly dangerous piece of satire doesn’t land any punches: it never could.

Even the most successful sketches have a certain nagging air of pointlessness to them. Yes, right wing politicians – and, indeed, right wing people – are willing to say some pretty shocking things with relatively little prompting. And? This is hardly revelatory, or even news exactly – or rather, it’s hardly revelatory because it is the news, day in, day out, and has been since Trump launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists. Undeniably, there’s something quite striking about a lot of Baron Cohen’s sketches, particularly those in character as Erran Morad, an Israeli anti-terror activist; even then, though, if you set aside the shock value, there’s something decidedly insubstantial about them.

Perhaps the most memorable sketch across the course of the series was the one that featured Jason Spencer, a Republican congressman from Georgia; ostensibly teaching Spencer how to protect himself from terrorists, Baron Cohen convinces the right-wing lawmaker to take upskirt photos, run around with his trousers down, and yell the N word. One of the more shocking moments of the series – Spencer took very, very little prompting – it’s also arguably the only sketch that had any real impact: shortly after the episode aired, Spencer resigned from congress.

It seems an impressive testament to the wider impact of Who is America? until you realise that Spencer was already a lame duck congressman, having been beaten in a primary some months earlier; his time left in office was already limited, and the significance of his resignation is ultimately very little. It’s not that Who is America? would’ve needed to prompt waves of resignations to have any meaning, but rather the fact is that, if shock value is all the show offers in a time when shocks amount to nothing, of course it’s going to be insubstantial.

What, though, is Who is America? actually trying to say? If its premise is that America is suffering from some moral rot on a wider cultural level, then what does the show highlight as the cause?

It’s worth looking at the programme’s title sequence, which is arguably the most telling aspect of the entire show when trying to divine what Who is America? is actually trying to say. A sweeping shot of sunlit uplands and a montage of iconic quotes from former presidents gives way to a dizzying series of intercut images: Trump mocking a disabled reporter, Charlottesville Nazis and Women’s march protestors, Hillary Clinton with Harvey Weinstein, and a great big question mark hanging over them all.

Here, in the contrast between the image of the America of old and “America today”, it becomes clear what Who is America? is trying to say, and why it ultimately says nothing at all. Of course Bernie Sanders isn’t held to account, of course Corinne Olympios and art expert Christy Cones are morally equivalent to Dick Cheney and Jason Spencer, of course there’s nothing to offer but shock value. Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t concerned with ethics, he’s concerned with aesthetics – the ultimate crime his victims have committed is simply looking foolish. That’s what sets America of the past, represented by Reagan, and America today, represented by Trump, apart from one another: appearances.

And so there’s only ever one answer to Baron Cohen’s central question, at least as it’s posed in Who is America?

Who cares?

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On Bond 26, the next James Bond, and how to save the franchise

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So, James Bond.

Bond is probably the franchise I care about least – the only one I’ve ever seen was Skyfall, which was entertaining enough, but hasn’t really prompted me to search out any of the others – but have the strongest opinions on. Though I suppose that’s strong opinions on what would actually get me to care about the franchise.

Anyway. Bond is in the news again at the moment because Danny Boyle has left Bond 25 under a cloud of creative differences, meaning that what is presumably going to be Daniel Craig’s last film as the infamous spy has been delayed further, and probably won’t be very good. This I am not, admittedly, especially interested in – I figure all that’s going to happen is the film comes out a year or so later, directed by a rising star who’s talented, but not so experienced that they have the clout to disagree with the studio, and still feel beholden enough to an opportunity like this that they wouldn’t walk away when higher ups start to interfere.

No, what I’m interested in again is Bond 26, and how the franchise is going to be refreshed and rebooted once again – I suspect that there are a lot of conversations about that going on behind closed doors anyway. It’s something I wrote about a few years ago, kicking around a couple of ideas for a potentially interesting way of approaching the first film in a new Bond series, but thinking about it again lately, I’m not really convinced that idea is quite radical enough.

So, let’s backtrack a second. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Craig era, with all its grim realism, was at least in part a response to Austin Powers, right? After Mike Meyers did the parody version, they couldn’t quite get away with another Bond film that was quite so over the top, hence moving in the other direction.

The question then becomes, I think, what is the next Bond era going to be a response to? Well, it’ll be stuff like Jason Bourne or John Wick, but particularly it’ll be a response to Mission Impossible: the big, successful action thrillers of the past few years, the ones that have cornered the genre and defined expectations for that type of film. The obvious response to that, you might think, is for Bond to try and go bigger and better – to get the next leading man to do even more dangerous stunts than Tom Cruise, to have even better fight choreography than John Wick, whatever.

I’m not convinced that’s the right approach, though. If we accept the premise that other franchise have perfected the action thriller genre, then surely Bond shouldn’t be trying to play that game anymore. There’s a need, I think, to look at what James Bond as a franchise can do uniquely, playing upon all the interesting resonances the character has as a cultural icon, a genuinely weighty part of the zeitgeist.

What’d interest me personally is if, over the next decade or so, James Bond isn’t presented as one linear narrative, but instead a much more creator-driven anthology of one-off instalments. Start developing a series of individual films, at a range of different budgets, with different lead actors and different directors. The franchise as it stands currently hasn’t had much to do with the character of Bond from the Ian Fleming’s books for a while now; it’s time to embrace the fact that Bond is an archetype more than anything else now, an idea that’s so big and influential and famous, such that getting different actors and directors to offer their own take on the character would be rewarding in the same way that having different Hamlets is rewarding.

Get Chris Nolan to do a black and white, 1960s Bond starring Tom Hardy. Have Riz Ahmed to star in a globetrotting thriller that engages with Bond’s colonial legacy. Do a low budget, psychological thriller that leans in on the espionage angle and asks, if ‘James Bond’ really is a code name, who is the man behind 007? Offer the series to people like Steve McQueen, Lynne Ramsay, Noah Hawley, Andrea Arnold, Kathryn Bigelow or Denis Villeneuve; cast people like Idris Elba, Gillian Anderson, Emily Blunt, Tom Hiddleston, Thandie Newton or David Oyelowo.

Artistically and creatively, it’s the best choice for the Bond franchise moving forward – the chance to do something genuinely new and interesting with a film series that’s perhaps starting to spin its wheels a little bit. It’s a chance to refresh the character, to attract big stars who might not want to be attached to an ongoing series for years, and tell stories that only James Bond could.

(It’ll never happen, of course, but after the second James Norton Bond movie you’ll kinda wish it did.)

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On the importance of endings, and why you need to get them right

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An ending needs to offer closure, a resolution to the plot threads, themes and ideas you’ve introduced over the years. If style is simply the mistakes you never stop making, this is the time to embrace those mistakes: remind them why they loved the story, and go out on a high.  If ever there’s a time to be self-indulgent, this is it – refer back to the old favourites and the recent successes, reflect on the first time you got something properly right, but don’t forget the best of your recent episodes. Normally it’s best to ignore the fans, but after all the support they’ve offered to you, it’s worth looking back on all the ones they liked over the years. Throw in a reference or two to the spinoff series your show might have borne – they’re continuing without you, even if they might not be quite the same anymore.

So, here’s a post that has nothing to do with anything really.

Ostensibly, it’s about the endings of television programmes and such, but it is in fact about the conclusion of my weekly Yahoo column, which came to an end after almost three years because of budget cuts. Which is, you know, fair enough, can’t argue with that (and I’m still going to make the occasional freelance contribution anyway, which perhaps undercuts the above more than a little bit).

It was a clever idea, although also very self-indulgent one, and it probably could’ve made for a much better post if I was a better writer than I actually am. At the moment it’s just a bit naff, but arguably maybe a little funny I guess.

Not a bad note to end on though really.

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Did The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 go too far?

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Part of that question, though, is the acknowledgement that it works from something of a flawed premise: what does it even mean for The Handmaid’s Tale to “go too far”? As Margaret Atwood once noted of the now nearly thirty year old novel, there’s “nothing in the book that didn’t happen somewhere”, and it’s not like that isn’t still essentially true of the television adaptation; not long after a flashback saw Alexis Bledel’s Emily lose her job as a teacher because she was gay, something similar took place in Texas – more obviously, though, there’s the extended consideration of familial separation, and children taken away from their parents. If the point of The Handmaid’s Tale is that every patriarchy is its own Gilead in its own way, that people do already live there in some sense or another, to turn around and argue that the show is “going too far” is misguided at best and deeply condescending at worst, tantamount to telling someone to just shut up and stop complaining.

Yet there’s another aspect to the question, a point to elaborate on further: does The Handmaid’s Tale go too far to still be entertainment? There’s something increasingly uncomfortable about the act of watching The Handmaid’s Tale, and the way it invites audiences to watch a programme that is increasingly reliant upon the shock value of patriarchal violence. It’s difficult to unpack this, because it’s not exactly the only thing The Handmaid’s Tale does – there are fantastic performances, the standout this year being Yvonne Strahovski’s Serena Joy, and some excellent direction and cinematography (to highlight a particular detail, The Handmaid’s Tale films light in a really interesting way). At the same time, considering what these performances and this direction goes towards creating, there’s something a little off about actually watching The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s not exactly that audiences become complicit, but there’s something discomforting about how the show presents its drama as something that is, on some level, meant to be entertaining.

So, something I was thinking about – quite often, actually – while watching The Handmaid’s Tale this year was whether or not it was going “too far”.

It’s obviously a fairly… limited, I suppose, comment to make about a show like this, because what does “too far” even mean? I’m not sure I did an especially good job of articulating entirely what I meant about the tone of the show this year – all the ways in which it felt different to the first season – but I’m mostly pleased with how the article turned out in the end. Indeed, it’s the sort of piece that makes me wish I was a little better at actually sharing the work I’ve done, because I imagine this is one that would’ve prompted some interesting discussions.

Probably I’m still going to watch series 3; if nothing else, I’m interested in how it’s going to continue from that cliffhanger, although I’m not actually entirely sure it was a good creative choice. I do, however, really doubt that series 2 is going to make my end of year best list – a surprise, given how highly series 1 ranked for me.

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On Succession, likeable characters, and the scope of a series

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Succession’s first episode recently aired for the first time in the UK; in the US, meanwhile, the HBO series has just finished its first season.

What’s been interesting to observe, though, is the narrative that’s built up around Succession. Certainly, the series is well acclaimed – or, at least, it is now. There’s been a noticeable trend of people who watched the pilot episode and gave up, only returning because of the strong word of mouth from those who did continue with the series; in terms of the show’s reception, Succession is the story of a programme that lost a lot of viewers before eventually reclaiming them.

It’s not difficult to understand why someone might not want to continue watching Succession after finishing the first episode. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, exactly; in a lot of ways, it’s quite compelling. However, focusing as it does on a family seemingly comprised entirely of deeply horrible people, Succession isn’t a programme that goes out of its way to endear viewers to its characters – indeed, the exaggerated displays of ostentatious wealth that punctuate the pilot episode are no doubt intended to elicit contempt for the characters. There’s no ‘pat the dog’ moment, with director Adam McKay and writer Jesse Armstrong going to great lengths to ensure that, by the end of the episode, you’re going to hate more or less all of them.

So!

A few scattered thoughts here on Succession, one of HBO’s latest dramas. (Well, I’m inclined to be difficult and call it a comedy, but still.) What I found quite interesting about Succession is the way that the conversation around it developed, with a lot of people beginning the series, abandoning it, and then returning because of strong word of mouth from those who stuck with it.

That got me thinking a little bit about likeable characters (I’ve been winding myself up a lot about whether or not “likeable” is the correct spelling, and I’m still not wholly sure) and… I called it “the scope of a series”, but what I mean is the amount of time we’re willing to give a programme to unfold and show its full hand. That had been on my mind for a while anyway, ever since I saw a couple of reviews really rip into Genius: Picasso based on its first four episodes, so it was good to get a chance to talk about it.

I’m not, admittedly, entirely sure anything I said made sense, but then I’m never especially sure of that to be honest! I always find the more editorial/opinion esque pieces a little more difficult. Something to work on, I suppose.

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