Thursday 8:30 p.m. / 7:30 p.m. Central
In the opening episode of NBC's new reality series,
"The Apprentice," starring Donald Trump and 16
people you loathed in high school, one contestant uses
the words "viceroy" and "homo erectus" in sequence and
is promptly eliminated. This earns the maligned genre
some praise: Reality TV may be
crass, banal and totally removed from reality and our notions of fairness
and decency, but it can viscerally satisfy by throwing a smarmy
know-it-all to the lions. All hail! Reality TV is our bread and
That's why the show, in all its decadence, belongs to the Reagan years. Like Trump himself, "The Apprentice" is straight out of 1987. It is brash, loud and tacky. If it were a car, it would be a Lotus Esprit getting obscene performance out of a dinky four-cylinder engine. There's no reason the show is a necessary, or even important, commentary on our wealth-obsessed culture. Other reality shows promise fame and romantic fulfillment; this one promises a job with the man who gave us the Taj Mahal casino. It's superfluous in every way, and entirely fine with that, thank you very much.
The design of "The Apprentice" is a simple import of "Survivor," by that show's creator, Mark Burnett, with what sounds like "Survivor" music mailed in by a kidnapped and drugged Paul Oakenfold. Two teams compete at various tasks. The losing team gets slimmed by one. The show's novelty is that this reduction comes not from the bitter team members themselves, but from the Donald. Sitting on his perch, flanked by his, yes, viceroys, he resembles none other than the Christ in a Renaissance triptych. Mother of God, pray for us. Seriously.
Despite, or, rather, because of its dramatic idiocy, the show has a dated charm. For example, "The Apprentice" joyfully indulges in gross gender stereotypes: All the women are leggy and striking and largely unable to navigate or use their cellular phones. We root for them anyway, and this is as the Donald would hope because he makes no secret of his preference for the fairer sex, nor the sexual undertones of their team name, the Protégé corp. Prompted by nothing but the relative length of their skirts, the ever-subtle Donald says, "They're looking good, fellas." Given his proclivity for women with fine bone structure, the losing female contestants can angle for a consolation prize of the Girlfriend; this is surely why Trump shows them his apartment, which appears to have been cobbled together from bathrooms at Caesar's Palace. Nevertheless, Tammy, the philosopher of the group, announces: "This is, like, rich. Rich. Really Rich." Then she says it again. It's true, irony really is dead.
The men are all cast to type, too, but their reluctance to claim the mantle of alpha male means we have to listen to a lot of useless self-help blather about teamwork and strategy. Haven't any of them seen a reality show? There's more testosterone in an episode of "Hope and Faith" than in the entire Versacorp … corporation. If their ridiculous name provides any suggestion as to how this lot of back-slappers will fare, it's going to be a long 13 weeks. Troy, who hails from that part of Idaho beneath the Mason-Dixon line, is so annoyingly earnest that his teammates see no other option but to make him their project leader against the women in the show's first challenge, a lemonade-selling contest. When Troy refuses to actually lead, instead letting each teammate find their inner entrepreneur, chaos ensues. David chases bicyclists with a lemonade sign; Jerry looks worried; Bowie perspires; Kwame wishes he were back at Goldman Sachs; Sam tries to sell a glass of Country Time for $1,000, linking its purchase to the satisfaction of the American Dream. In their frenetic state they resemble not so much a disciplined sales force, but the quasi-sentient chimpanzees in the first scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Meanwhile, the girls can't unload their lemonade fast enough. Kristen takes a page from the Paris Hilton school of business, offering her phone number with a glass of lemonade for twenty bucks. Bingo. Sex sells, but a location with a steady stream of pedestrians, like, say, midtown Manhattan, also helps. Why the men didn't go to Central Park to sell lemonade on a hot summer day mystifies, but, then again, so does the Donald's improbably unapologetic comb-over. "The Apprentice" doesn't answer questions, but, at least in its own way, it provokes them. For example: When will the vowel-endowed duo of Ereka and Omarosa come to blows? Hint: The hour draws nigh.
Meanwhile, the Donald unconsciously sneaks in a dynamite, pitch-perfect impression of Christopher Walken doing a dynamite, pitch-perfect impression of the Donald. "New York... (gargantuan pause). It can chew... (pause, again) you up... (even longer pause) ...and spit you out (blank stare into the camera)."
It is proof that, even in a compulsively watchable train-wreck like "The Apprentice," where every scene swells with portentous melodrama, there are unexpected moments of subtle beauty.
Joshua Adams (joshua at uchicago dot edu)