The thing that gets you is the laughter. On Sunday night’s finale of Who Is America?—a segment that aired after the credits had made it seem that the end of the show had come and gone—Showtime offered one more instance of Sacha Baron Cohen fooling, and in that way revealing, a selected representative of the American identity. This time, the stunt-happy satirist was playing “Gio,” an Italian playboy, host of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous–style show La Vita Diamante di Gio. Gio was meeting in a Las Vegas hotel suite with one such diamond-life-haver, a person introduced as “an American hero and women’s rights activist.” That person, the show soon revealed, was … O.J. Simpson.
The segment goes like this: Gio introduces his girlfriend, “Christina,” to O.J.; she professes to have no idea who Simpson is (this despite Gio’s references to “Buffalo Bill” and the Naked Gun films). Christina’s confusion is brief, though; Gio proceeds to make stabbing motions into her chest with his hand, at which point her face lights up with recognition. “She knows that, oh Jesus,” Simpson says, shaking his head and—this will be a theme in the segment—laughing. And then “Gio” tries, repeatedly, to coax O.J. into confessing to the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. After Christina leaves the room, Gio confesses to O.J. that “she’s gorgeous but sometimes I want to kill her,” and that “I want to send her on a private helicopter and throw her over the Grand Canyon—oopsie daisy!” Gio jokes about having her do a bungee jump where the cord isn’t long enough; O.J. tentatively replies that the cord could also be too long, to the same effect. “Me and you, we got something in common,” Gio says: “We both, how you say, ‘lady-killers’?” At this, again, O.J. laughs, uncomfortably.
The scene is decidedly painful to watch; this is “comedy” only in the strictest sense of the term. There is no catharsis to be found in the discomfort here, no soft redemption in the laughter. There is only, moment by moment, awkwardness so acute as to render as indictment: of the people onscreen, in one way—all those breezy jokes about cords and cuts and killing—but also of the people on the other side of it. Those who constitute the America in question in the show’s title. The Who Is America? segment airs on Showtime not long after The People v. O.J. Simpson, Ryan Murphy’s lightly fictionalized take on the events of the 1990s, aired on FX, and after the deeply researched documentary O.J.: Made in America aired on ESPN. The upshot of both series, and of the many other retrospectives that considered the “trial of the century” two decades after its conclusion, was the cultural context the legal proceedings operated in: the obsession. The low-speed chase. The glove. The easy way Americans have of conflating murder and entertainment—the effortlessness with which American culture can take a tragedy and turn it into comedy.
This weekend, Cohen announced that Who Is America? wouldn’t return for a second season; the O.J. scene, then, doubles as the final scene to the series. And it is, in its stridently unfunny way, a fitting epilogue. Here was an exchange in which America itself, more directly than at any other point in the show, functions as Cohen’s great dupe. Each gleeful stabbing gesture made by the fake “lady-killer,” through the intimate distance of the screen, becomes a reminder of the bloodlust that helps to make American culture what it is. Each campy attempt Gio makes to trap O.J. in a confession—and each awkward laugh O.J. offers in return—is an indictment not just of the men in that Vegas suite, but of a culture that is so deeply confused about what constitutes “entertainment” in the first place.
And, so, with its finale, Who Is America? did what, in its previous episodes, it was never fully able to do: It offered a convoluted answer to the convoluted question of “Who is America?” One of the tensions that has plagued the show since its inception has been the foundational one: Who deserves to be made a mark in the first place? Who deserves to be alternately fooled and laid bare by the unsparing human spotlight that is Sacha Baron Cohen, fully committed to his character? And who, actually, is being satirized with all the trickery? (Who Is America?: What Is the Point?) The show, in its brief run, has often failed when it has come to both questions, serving largely as a testament to the limits of satire during an American moment that so efficiently satirizes itself. Its segment with The Bachelor’s Corinne Olympios, in which Cohen convinced the reality pseudo-star to promote a program that “supports” child soldiers, was a distinct case of satire that fails by punching down; its segment with the owner of an art gallery—he posed as an artist and tried to convince her to include her pubic hair in his brush—similarly confused satire with bullying.
With O.J., though, Cohen found a fitting mark: a powerful person whose power manages to implicate the rest of us. Here is Simpson, serving yet again as what he so often has been in the American imagination: a man who is also a metaphor for American attitudes toward race, toward masculinity, toward celebrity, toward justice. Cohen prepared for the interview, reportedly, by spending hours with a former FBI interrogator who is an expert at eliciting confessions. The Simpson segment, in that sense, was an explicit attempt to do what so many other works of culture attempt to do implicitly these days: to supplement a flawed legal system. To interpret justice as a matter of culture, as well as a matter of law. Cohen was trying, through the comedy of trickery, to achieve what the American judicial system so often fails to do: to find true justice.
In that respect, he failed. O.J., again and again, refused to confess. (“I didn’t kill nobody,” he said at one point, laughing.) But the segment offered an indictment nonetheless. Because: the laughter. The lighthearted tone of the whole thing. The collision of the most tragic and serious event in the world—the violent murder of two people—with the slick levity of American entertainment: an industrialized system that finds ways, again and again, to insist that anything can be made amusing. In that final scene of Who Is America?, in a plush hotel suite in Sin City, “slaughter” and “laughter” mingled, painfully. There was “Gio,” merrily pantomiming the throat-slitting of his giggling “girlfriend”; there was O.J., chuckling uncomfortably in response. For a show that has struggled to find is message and its purpose, it was a final declaration about satire and politics and the limits of each: Laughter, in its warmth, can bring out the best in us. And laughter, in its coldness, can allow us to make light of the worst.