OJ Simpson prank wraps up the most uncomfortable show of the year
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OJ Simpson prank wraps up the most uncomfortable show of the year

In the end, Sarah Palin didn't appear. The one-time vice presidential candidate had become one of
the highest-profile victims of the pranks pulled by Sacha Baron Cohen and his production team
on the TV series Who is America? (Stan).

Palin had publicly expressed her anger at those who had invited her to participate in what she
believed to be "a legit Showtime historical documentary", branding their humour "evil, exploitive,
sick".

But instead of screening the interview that she'd unknowingly conducted with one of Baron
Cohen's characters, the end credits on the seventh and final episode of the caustic comedy
cheekily listed her as Special Publicity Consultant (Inadvertent).

The series ended with a segment in which Baron Cohen, disguised as sleazy Italian celebrity photographer Gio Monaldo, joked with O.J. Simpson about them both being branded "ladykillers".

It was another excruciating encounter in a series that would have to be a hot contender for the
title of Most Uncomfortable Show of the Year, offering segments that were shocking, astonishing
and, in several cases, frankly unbelievable.

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Baron Cohen has made an art of adopting outlandish identities – Ali G, Borat, Bruno – as
camouflage while lobbing questions and comments like grenades at unsuspecting folk in order to
provoke them and record their reactions.

O.J. Simpson was pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen in the final episode of Who Is America?

O.J. Simpson was pranked by Sacha Baron Cohen in the final episode of Who Is America?

Photo: Stan

And there's been no shortage of provocative encounters in Who Is America?

Former Vice President Dick Cheney claiming pride at his role in the Gulf War and happily autographing a "waterboarding kit". Gun-rights lobbyists Larry Pratt and Philip Van Cleave enthusiastically joining a campaign to arm pre-schoolers with guns. Georgia state representative Jason Spencer being schooled in methods for fighting Isis by baring his bum and trying to run backwards into allegedly homophobic terrorists while screaming the n-word.

More than a year in the making, Who is America? is nominally an exploration of modern America
and ostensibly a comedy, although it's more likely to inspire alarm and disbelief than laughs.

Following the aggressive opening montage of iconic American images set to pounding drums,
episodes unfurl like a barrage, making it something of a relief that they're only a half-hour long.

Through the series, Baron Cohen has taken on a range of disguises. Right-wing nut-job Billy
Wayne Ruddick Jr, PhD, who rides a mobility scooter in order to conserve his energy, spouts
conspiracy theory nonsense and yells "fake news!" anytime anyone disagrees with him.

Balding, pony-tailed, left-wing nut-job Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, a "self-hating white male" who's cycling through his fractured country in an effort to "heal the divide".

The star of the show, though, has been Israeli anti-terrorism expert Erran Morad, who claims a
range of ranks in the military and whose tactics for fighting terrorism have spurred some of the
series' most outrageous behaviour.

Supporting acts include former prisoner and now aspiring artist and chef Ricky Sherman and Finnish TV star OMGwhizzBoyOMG.

There are elements of both Candid Camera and Norman Gunston's clueless yet disarming
interviewer in Baron Cohen's approach, though his style is more pointy and political.

He's a stirrer, a provocateur, deliberately, artfully, pushing buttons in order to get a reaction in which people reveal themselves. And if he doesn't initially get a sufficiently dramatic response, he
pushes harder.

Sacha Baron Cohen, left, as Erran Morad in the show.

Sacha Baron Cohen, left, as Erran Morad in the show.

Photo: Stan

It doesn't make for comfortable viewing, but that isn't the goal. The aim is to prod people so that
they drop their guards and essential truths are revealed. And when he's going after political
figures, activists or media identities, they seem like fair game.

They’re out in the public arena, taking a stand, making their cases. Sometimes, though, he takes aim at people who seem like soft targets, the trickery seems cruel and you end up feeling sorry for his victims.

Like Trump supporters Jane Page Thompson and Mark Thompson, who invited Nira to dinner at their South Carolina home and ended up hearing about his sexual attraction to children and his partner Naomi's fling with a dolphin. Or California art expert Christy Cones, who gamely supplied some pubic hair for Sherman's paintbrush, after he'd shown her his work, apparently featuring fluids
excreted from his body.

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Who is America? has exposed ignorance and gullibility, as well as rampant prejudice.

It was evident in the episode where Nira conducted a town hall meeting in Bullhead City, Arizona,
proposing an influx of cash that would come with the construction of a mosque.

Watching the level of outrage rise among the assembled residents, who essentially protested that it was bad enough that they had to tolerate black people, let alone having to welcome Muslims, was extraordinary.

But the series has also revealed that some Americans are surprisingly patient and endeavour to
be respectful of guests in their homes or their places of work.

Who is America? has been confronting, messy, at times squirm-inducing viewing. There's been
some criticism that the show has nothing to say and that it's failed to change the world in any
way, as though somehow that was its mission. But it has revealed gullibility, stupidity and prejudice.

We've seen fearful people who are easily led. We've seen silly people having their egos massaged. We've also witnessed decent people, whose opinions we might or might not share, trying to be polite.

So perhaps America, like many countries, is all of the above.