‘Who is America?’ Cohen splits critics with TV return

Sacha Baron Cohen conjures four new characters in ‘Who is America?’ (Courtesy Showtime)
Updated 16 July 2018
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‘Who is America?’ Cohen splits critics with TV return

NEW YORK: “Who is America?” is both the title of Sacha Baron Cohen’s first foray into television satire in more than a decade and the existential question on the lips of liberals living through the Trump presidency.
Trailed by a blaze of pre-launch publicity and a furious backlash from public figures who believe they have been pranked, its splashy debut won most attention Sunday for hoodwinking Republican politicians into endorsing a made-up plan to train pre-schoolers how to fire a gun.
The series brings seven episodes to pay-to-view channel Showtime years after the British comedian was last on television with “Da Ali G Show” — his wannabe-rapper character interviewing the powerful and famous.
In “Who is America?” Cohen conjures up four new characters. Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr., is an opponent of “mainstream” media who debates health care with left-leaning Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
There is Nira Cain-N’degeocello, a pink-hat wearing, ultra-liberal hippy, who dines at the home of a Trump-voting couple.
Rick Sherman is an ex-con turned artist who works in the medium of human feces and bodily fluids, and who meets a totally accepting California gallery owner who donates public hair to his paint brush.
Finally, Israeli “anti-terror expert” Col. Erran Morad pranks Republicans into endorsing a concocted plan to teach children as young as three and four how to fire a firearm, along with a “Puppy Pistol.”
Teasers for the new series saw US former vice president Dick Cheney signing a “waterboard kit” and Sarah Palin unleash a furious Facebook attack, upset to have been one of Cohen’s pranked subjects.
Palin, the former vice-presidential nominee and ex-Alaska governor who did not appear in the first episode, slammed the comedian’s “evil, exploitive, sick ‘humor.’ “
But if early reviews are more muted, they are also mixed.
The New York Times called the first episode “tepid and inconsequential,” and ill-suited to the times.
If The New Yorker waxed lyrical about “sporadically excellent conceptual art,” trade magazine Variety warned Cohen’s nihilism can “itch and irritate more than enlighten and entertain.”
The Guardian praised “one moment of viral gold” but otherwise lamented “mostly a frustrating experience.”
After “Da Ali G Show,” which transferred from Britain to America, Cohen found success with hit movie characters such as bumbling Kazakh reporter Borat and gay Austrian fashionista Bruno.
His 2012 movie, “The Dictator,” starring himself as a Muammar Qaddafi style tyrant was less well reviewed.


What We Are Reading Today: Red Meat Republic by Joshua Specht

Updated 23 April 2019
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What We Are Reading Today: Red Meat Republic by Joshua Specht

  • Joshua Specht puts people at the heart of his story — the big cattle ranchers who helped to drive the nation’s westward expansion

By the late 19th century, Americans rich and poor had come to expect high-quality fresh beef with almost every meal. 

Beef production in the US had gone from small-scale, localized operations to a highly centralized industry spanning the country, with cattle bred on ranches in the rural West, slaughtered in Chicago, and consumed in the nation’s rapidly growing cities. 

Red Meat Republic tells the remarkable story of the violent conflict over who would reap the benefits of this new industry and who would bear its heavy costs, says a review on the University Press website.

Joshua Specht puts people at the heart of his story — the big cattle ranchers who helped to drive the nation’s westward expansion, the meatpackers who created a radically new kind of industrialized slaughterhouse, and the stockyard workers who were subjected to the shocking and unsanitary conditions described by Upton Sinclair in his novel The Jungle. 

Specht brings to life a turbulent era marked by Indian wars, Chicago labor unrest, and food riots in the streets of New York.