Judge Patrick Bromley just wants a little respeck, that's all.
Our review of Da Ali G Show: Da Compleet First Seazon, published September 6th, 2004, is also available.
Big up yo'self.
The word "genius" probably gets thrown around too often in modern society. I imagine I'm as guilty of this as anyone else, too frequently giving in to fits of hyperbole when an artist captivates or excites me—the older I get, the rarer that occurs, the more hyperbolic I become. If I'm thinking realistically, the word applies to fewer people than are labeled such. Prince is a genius. Steve Martin is a genius. I think Peter Jackson might be one. And, on the basis of his half-hour HBO sketch show, Da Ali G Show, I'd put Sacha Baron Cohen (aka Ali G, aka Borat, aka Brüno), on that short list.
Da Ali G Show is the best comedy on HBO (yes, even better than the great Curb Your Enthusiasm), filling the void left a few years back by Mr. Show and the first series that can rightfully be considered heir to that show's vacant throne. It's obscenely funny stuff—the kind of thing you try repeating and re-enacting to your friends, only to find that the best possible way to make them understand is to show a sketch to them (at which point your friendship is either forever strengthened by the bonds of laughter you form, thankful to find a counterpart who is in on the joke. Or, they stare at you like you're a leper and that's the end of it.) and hope for the same response you had. And it really is the show that has to be seen to be understood: as much as it is about far-out characters (Ali G, a wanna-be gangsta with a thick Cockney accent and a marginal grasp on American politics; Borat, a forever-confused Khazakhstani journalist covering America; and Brüno, a gay Austrian male model and fashion expert), it's really about human behavior—not Cohen's characters, but how people respond to them.
Only six episodes make up Da Ali G Show—Da Compleet Second Seazon, but each show is jam-packed with enough material to make up for it. The season (I'm sorry…SEAZON…respek) breaks down as follows:
The trick to Ali G's greatness isn't that Cohen is completely willing to make a fool of himself for a laugh—even though he sometimes is. It isn't even that he's able to make fools out of the guest stars and "regular people" who fall victim to his comic creations—though he sometimes is. No, what I find so clever about Cohen's show is that he simply provides his subjects the rope. Most do just fine hanging themselves—the "throw the Jew down the well" sing-along in Season One is a perfect example of this. His characters (Borat in particular) come off as so simple, so unassuming, so downright simple that it doesn't take long for people to feel like they can say whatever they want in front of them. Cohen does have the tendency to reach for the same result in Season Two, but can't always make it there without forcing it. Try as he might to get two kindly, older winemakers to admit that America was better off with slaves, he's never able to make it stick—you get the feeling they go along with him out of sheer politeness or confusion. It's not quite as funny when folks are trapped into going along with him. They need to get there on their own ignorance.
Often just as funny as Ali G's ability to expose ignorance is its study of polite society. Watching respected political figures (it took some restraint not to put quotation marks around the word "respected") attempt to answer Ali G's questions with some amount of logic or dignity can often be just as funny as when he makes a fool of Pat Buchanan. Or observe as Sam Donaldson, that look of constipated, humorless integrity forever plastered across his face, does his best to conduct a legitimate interview with the cockney hip-hopper. Donaldson never talks down to him, never laughs at him or walks away in disgust—he just has to try really hard to get his points understood. Though not in on the joke, guys like Donaldson never come away looking like a fool—just very, very professional and a little square.
HBO's release of Da Ali G Show—Da Compleet Second Seazon is a two disc package (not really necessary, what with there being only six episodes in total, but whatever) with three episodes appearing on each disc. They're presented in their original full frame TV aspect ratio, looking as good as or better than the original broadcasts. The audio is a standard 2.0 stereo presentation, both serviceable and suitable for the material. No subtitles are made available, and I think that's a mistake—the accents Cohen uses are often so impenetrable that it's difficult to make out what's being said. I realize that, often times, the technique is just another facet of the joke (with Borat and, to a lesser extent, the effeminate Brüno), but when it isn't, it becomes a hindrance.
There seems to have been some attempt to remedy a major shortcoming of Season One's DVD release—the lack of deleted scenes and bonus interviews—by including close to an hour of such material here. It's all extremely funny stuff, extending the pleasures of the show itself (that is, if you find the series funny in the first place; if not, you won't get much of a kick out of the bonus material…or this review, for that matter) and not demonstrating any real reason for it's omission beyond the limitations of the show's running time. Of course, the trade-off is that this is the only bonus feature on the disc; we're denied even the single commentary Cohen recorded for the previous season's release.
I know that there will be individuals who disagree with me. They will say that Da Ali G Show isn't funny, and that Sacha Baron Cohen is not a genius (and that neither, for that matter, is Steve Martin…but have you seen The Jerk lately?). I'm okay with that. It's what criticism is all about. And while I've admitted to being too generous with the word in the past, I'm not sure that's the case here. To me, Cohen is something of a modern day Andy Kaufman, disappearing into his characters until there's no sign of the man himself, and provoking a kind of reactionary comedy from everyone around him. To me, though, Kaufman's comedy was always about himself; what I like about Cohen is the way he knows when to get out of his own way and let the regular folks do the heavy lifting. To me, that's a kind of genius. Respek.
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