Sacha’s smug comedy has lost its shock value


Cheap shot: Sacha Baron Cohen with gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave in Who is America?
Cheap shot: Sacha Baron Cohen with gun rights activist Philip Van Cleave in Who is America?

In the history of downbeat programme titles, I can’t think of any more dispiriting than My Broken Brain (RTÉ1) and it was the title alone that almost put me off watching this documentary about people who suffer from severe neurological conditions.

I’m not sure I felt any more positive at the programme’s end because it wasn’t clear what the viewer was meant to take from the five stories it told beyond a guilty feeling of relief (there but for the grace of God), though the stories themselves were engrossing.

Theatrical producer Ronan Smith was determined to give up his career before early Alzheimer’s was allowed to take the decision away from him. “Losing your mind is not something that’s easy to absorb,” he said, and what made it even harder was that his father, Dublin Theatre Festival impresario Brendan Smith, had also succumbed to the condition and that Ronan’s children might also be at risk from this rare genetic strain.

Brian Byrne had multiple epileptic seizures daily and had agreed to a brain operation (hard to watch) that reduced the severity and frequency of the seizures. However, 47-year-old Billy Reilly, suffering from motor neurone disease, wasn’t so fortunate when he underwent clinical trials that achieved nothing. “This is a death sentence,” he said.

Gary Boyle (50) had contracted Parkinson’s at 44, while Cynthia Gardner had been diagnosed with it at 34. Her symptoms were much more extreme than those of Gary, who had come to realise that “it’s not the end of the world”, though it might seem so to less resilient sufferers.

We heard, too, from spouses and children, all of them supportive, though at the end I was left wondering about the film’s point – beyond reminding us of the plight of some people and how fortunate many of us still are.

Who is America? (Channel 4) marked the return of Sacha Baron Cohen, though not as Kazakh journalist Borat or fashion reporter Bruno or Ali G, the idiotic white rapper who made his debut by duping famous interviewees on The 11 O’Clock Show in the late 1990s. Now the impersonator is too famous for such obvious disguises to fool his victims, and in this week’s opening show he came up with four more, mostly by using grotesque prosthetics: posing as an alt-right propagandist when meeting Bernie Sanders and as a former Israeli commander when talking to gun lobbyists.

This segment, in which he got a group of congressmen to endorse the arming of pre-school children with semi-automatic weapons, was by far the most effective and was actually quite chilling, but in some of the other interviews you couldn’t help feeling for his victims – even a fanatical Trump-supporting couple who, having invited Baron Cohen in one of his daft guises into their home, were too polite to protest at their interviewer’s outrageous utterances.

This was smug comedy for a smug liberal audience and without any of the shock value that made Ali G so novel 20 years ago. And the people he’s now targeting – those who brought Trump into power – will simply dismiss his attempts at satire as part of a left-wing conspiracy to undermine the core values of the real America.

Still, I’ll probably watch his forthcoming interview with Sarah Palin, if only to see what has led the Alaskan politician to take legal action against the show.

Tasmanian-born gay comedian Hannah Gadsby has become something of a cult figure, with lots of celebrities expressing their admiration, and so I caught up with her on Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix), a 90-minute film of her stage act recorded in Sydney.

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And it’s certainly an unusual performance that begins deceptively with droll reminiscences of growing up in Tasmania, “famous for its potatoes and its small gene pool” and a place she had to leave “as soon as I found out I was a little bit lesbian”. Eventually, she came out to her mum, who responded that this was “not something I need to know – what if I told you I was a murderer?”

Gradually, though, the self-deprecating jokes fall away, to be replaced in the show’s last half-hour by revelations of beatings and rapes she’d suffered at the hands of women-hating men, by confessions of the shame she has always felt at being judged “a fat, ugly dyke” (“I’m still ashamed of who I am”), and by a seemingly barely controlled anger against the ingrained misogyny that has blighted her life and that of so many other women.

It’s a startling performance, moving slowly but inexorably from barbed sweetness to outright rage, and it should take most viewers, especially men, right out of their comfort zone.

Former Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain is nothing but sweetness and in Nadiya’s Family Favourites (BBC2) she smiled incessantly as she told us how to make coconut vermicelli, samosa pie, cheese biscuits and prawn biryani. The sun shone incessantly, too, and for 30 minutes viewers were assured that all was right with the world.

All was fine, too, in the first instalment of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema (BBC4), which focused on romantic comedies, from the days of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn to those of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.

The Observer film critic tends to look dreadfully earnest on television but he began disarmingly by declaring the 1984 Tom Hanks-Daryl Hannah romcom Splash to be “one of my favourite movies of all time”, though it’s certainly not one of mine. Indeed, he even invited us to consider The Shape of Water as “Splash meets Creature from the Black Lagoon”. And why not?

Indo Review

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