There are moments when Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? really says something. In segments like the Kinder-Guardians prank — or, in episode two, the Arizona focus group about building an enormous mosque — the Showtime series takes on controversial topics and does exactly what its title suggests. It reveals something about America and Americans.
But the segment in which Baron Cohen tricks reality star Corinne Olympios into promoting a program that “supports” child soldiers is not one of those moments.
The segment fails largely because of who Baron Cohen chooses as his target. Olympios rose to her current heights of public prominence after appearing as a contestant on season 21 of The Bachelor. She was a failed villain figure on The Bachelor, someone initially cast in a sex-object role whose oddities were then edited into something more like the season’s class clown. She had strange quirks: She fell asleep all the time, she had a nanny, her nanny was the only one who could prepare her favorite “cheese pasta” correctly, and she refused to use automatic doors. When bachelor Nick Viall took her on a hometown date, her choice of a dream day was to spend the afternoon at the mall. She outlasted the field of contestants to make the final four, and then Viall sent her home.
But her saga did not end there. Olympios next appeared on Bachelor in Paradise, where, before the season even began airing, rumors about a nonconsensual sexual interaction between her and former Bachelorette contestant DeMario Jackson led the entire production to shut down. An internal investigation found that no wrongdoing had occurred, but Corinne and DeMario were both booted off the season, and the scandal still hangs around her public image.
Now, Olympios is also on the list of unfortunates duped by Sacha Baron Cohen. Her appearance on Who Is America? is lengthy: After dressing in a hazmat suit for an Ebola virus–themed photo shoot, she reads from a prepared script that encourages people to adopt a child soldier, and then does an interview with Baron Cohen’s character Gio Monaldo, who asks her to embellish extensively about traveling to Sierra Leone. In the end, she makes up an entirely fictional interaction between herself and a local warlord who recognized her from The Bachelor, and how her mere presence “really helped with the whole massacre situation.”
The pranks of Who Is America? fall into two camps. In the first one, Baron Cohen creates an opportunity for someone to say something terrible, and then his targets do the rest themselves. The second camp of pranks is slightly different: Rather than the target revealing the depths of their moral depravity, Baron Cohen stretches how far they’ll go to comply with social conventions. He asks them to say bad things, and waits expectantly until they do. When you’re watching the results, it can be hard to tell the two camps apart because the setups are close to identical: Force people to respond to some extreme, ridiculous situation, and then wait to see whether they indict themselves. Even deciding the camp in which a segment belongs is based on our intangible gut reactions. There’s no question that Larry Pratt’s goblinlike joy at a rape joke is a reflection of his sincere beliefs, but that’s a conclusion largely based on his affect, not his language. Similarly, there’s no question that the Trump-loving couple in episode one were doing their very best to humor Baron Cohen’s claims of interspecific sex — but again, that’s entirely a reading of their affect, from their horrified raised eyebrows to their pursed lips.
Which brings us back to Olympios. From what we’ve seen of Who Is America? so far, her segment is a straightforward example of someone who has no idea what’s going on or how to extricate herself from the situation. As she reads from the prepared statement, her eyes dart around nervously. She says that she’s uncomfortable with lying, and then does her best to meet Monaldo’s expectations so she can be done with him. Even the story she makes up about meeting the warlord has glimmers of her confusion and reluctance: “I was surprised he knew who I was,” she says, before jumping off into the deep end and claiming that she “saved 6,000 people.” She looks like an imbecile, yes, but she also comes off as someone desperate to be seen.
Even her own account of the experience makes it seem like she didn’t know how to escape: “I was getting really upset and I had no idea what was going on,” Olympios told the Daily Beast, later adding that she “just want[ed] to get out of there, so I just did it.” Her confusion in the episode is so evident, it’s painful. Her appearance, her desperation to be on TV, and her complete bewilderment struck me as overwhelmingly sad.
Which makes me wonder: What is this segment trying to satirize, exactly? That a woman who’s already been used as a tool in multiple TV ratings ploys would make a fool of herself again? That she’s absurdly compliant with the demands of celebrity, to the point that she’ll go along with any script she’s given? At its most damning, the segment is a swipe at how happy Olympios is to be on television, and what exactly she’s willing to do for publicity. But for Baron Cohen, a notorious big-budget prankster who delights in making himself look like an idiot to take down other people as collateral damage, that satire can cut both ways.
In the end, nothing about Baron Cohen’s prank is as illuminating as what Olympios herself said about being pranked. “I’m so excited to be a part of his new project,” she told the Daily Beast. “I mean, not everyone gets to just be a cameo as themselves, so it’s fucking awesome.” She indicts herself more thoroughly than Who Is America? ever does.
But the segment does raise questions about Who Is America? and its goals. Why is this reality star a target? Why is the assumption that it’s hilarious to watch a powerful man manipulate a fame-hungry, clueless younger woman? (This is an important question for all of Baron Cohen’s pranks: Who has the power in the scenario, and is that power dynamic a reversal of the norm or a reinforcement?) Olympios already participated in a TV franchise that makes ordinary people famous because they’re willingly manipulated by producers. What’s really new here, aside from the jokes about child soldiers?
Who Is America? has some fantastic pranks with fascinating targets for Baron Cohen’s antics. But Corinne Olympios isn’t one of them. And it says something about Who Is America? that it can’t distinguish between earned, compelling bits and mean, tragic ones.