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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Doctor Who Review: It Takes You Away

doctor who it takes you away review ed hime jamie childs chris chibnall jodie whittaker bradley walsh mandip gill tosin cole

There’s me thinking the day had no more surprises left.

It Takes You Away is very good. I liked it a lot. I am, however, somewhat of the mind that a big part of this is because of where it is in the series, and indeed the series it’s in – after a run of episodes that don’t quite live up to the standards I’d have liked them to, this one feels better than it actually is by contrast. I’m not entirely sure if the Series 10 version of such would’ve had quite the same level of impact (though actually, and I recognise it sounds counter-intuitive, I think this episode might well have been improved had the rest of the series been better – more on that shortly, though).

On paper, there’s a lot to like. Conceptually, It Takes You Away is throwing around a lot of genuinely great ideas – not just the frog, but actually particularly the spin on the haunted house offered at the beginning. I really liked that, personally – that sort of character driven, quieter approach felt like some of the more emotionally sophisticated storytelling we’ve seen all year. Erik faking the monster to keep Hanne inside while he’s in the other world with his dead wife? That’s a brilliant idea, it really is, and there’s a neat resonance too with Ryan’s own dad and his experience of abandonment. Quite possibly it could’ve sustained the episode on its own terms, or at least gone a long way towards it with a little bit of work.

But, of course, that wasn’t the case, and there were plenty more interesting ideas and concepts being thrown out across the course of It Takes You Away – I think it’s probably fair to say that, of the nine episodes we’ve seen so far, this one had the greatest density of new ideas and… not plot twists, per se, but plot stages, certainly. There’s a willingness to engage with and indulge in the strange in a relatively straightforward way that I quite appreciated – the frog is absolutely bizarre, but it’s also the best part of the episode, and one of those things that probably only Doctor Who could do. (And, a little more cuttingly, one of those things that has been absent from Doctor Who for a little too long.)

So, yes, It Takes You Away had lots of interesting ideas and concepts, and it was all very good and entertaining, and I mostly enjoyed it. All well and good.

On paper.

doctor who it takes you away review jodie whittaker solitract soletract frog grace thirteenth doctor mirror ed hime

In practice, I think, the episode struggled somewhat. A few reasons, none of which are especially interesting ones – I think largely my problem is the antizone section, which struggled to impress me.

It’s not that it was filler, exactly – argument could be made that it was, I suppose, but I’m not wholly convinced that was the problem with it. No, I think the problem was largely down to the direction. I’ve been less than impressed with Jamie Childs’ efforts on the series so far generally, but I think the antizone section from this episode is probably the weakest stretch he’s directed so far. (Not that the rest of the episode was brilliant, exactly, but here’s where it was most damaging to the overall story, I think.) Those caves should’ve felt strange and unfamiliar to the point of being dangerously disorientating – in actual fact they were just a bit generic. Granted it’s been a while since we’ve seen Doctor Who do caves (or, at least, I’m struggling to think of a recent example – arguably sections of The Eaters of Light, maybe?) but this wasn’t exactly a compelling argument to suggest they’re worth doing. Putting a bit of a red light on something isn’t enough to make it look interesting, particularly when the stuff that would’ve heightened the distinctness of the setting (flesh balloons!) were entirely undersold.

So, what we’ve got, then, is a mostly flat section of the episode that isn’t quite realised very well, and in turn feels like it’s being focused on at the expense of other, more interesting aspects of the episode. It’s difficult not to argue, to my mind, that It Takes You Away would’ve been better with greater focus on the world on the other side of the mirror (and greater focus on the frog!) – there’s not quite enough time spent there to convey the sense that this might genuinely be anything other than a trick, or indeed enough time there to suggest a genuine friendship between the Doctor and the frog.

That this section was a little weak didn’t, actually, bother me that much. On the first viewing it still worked, more or less, and on repeat viewings… well, while it feels clear to me that that section with Ribbons is basically superfluous, there’s just enough going on there that it didn’t especially overstay its welcome. So, much as I would’ve liked to see a little more attention devoted to the more interesting aspects of the story, this somewhat-less-engaging aspect wasn’t a particular obstacle to my enjoyment of the piece.

doctor who it takes you away review bradley walsh tosin cole graham grandad ryan sinclair

What has, admittedly, rankled somewhat is a realisation I had a few days later: it should’ve been Ryan who went with the Doctor and Yaz to the other universe and saw Grace, while Graham stayed behind with Hanne.

It struck me while I was thinking about that final “granddad” moment towards the end. It was more than a little unearned, of course, but that’s not really the fault of It Takes You Away – there’s simply a need for more character work to have been done outside this episode. (That’s what I meant about the episode functioning better had the series been better – a rising tide lifts all ships and all that.) While it functions nicely on its own terms, a moment about Ryan trying to extend Graham some kindness, I can’t help but wonder if it would’ve been more effective coming after Ryan had been forced to say goodbye to Grace again?

Certainly, it’s not difficult to imagine the shape of the episode had it been structured that way. The scene where Grace tells Graham to forget Ryan doesn’t, to my mind, entirely work – the ending more or less presents itself fait accompli at that point. But if Grace is telling Ryan to forget Graham – something he would actually, on some levels, once have quite liked to hear – it takes on a different tone, I think, a stronger emotional beat.

It’s not that the scene didn’t work as presented in It Takes You Away – it just feels like the specifics of Bradley Walsh’s contract are, once again, taking oxygen away from the other characters, in this instance taking what surely should’ve been one of Ryan’s key emotional beats for the series. (I would also posit that it’s more interesting for Graham not to see Grace again than it is for Ryan not to, but still.) So that was a little frustrating. But you know. Not the end of the world.

Ultimately, then… it was good. I liked this episode. I don’t think it was quite as creative or strange as people have suggested – between the generic antizone caves and the “tempted by a fake dead relative” thing that’s been done in science fiction hundreds of times before, from Star Trek to Class, of all things, It Takes You Away perhaps doesn’t have as much to offer as it might have initially seemed.

But then, you know, there was the frog. And it really was a pretty great frog.

8/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 11 reviews

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