[17 January 2008]
For the seventh season of Donald Trump’s reality competition, the rules have changed a bit. Instead of 14 fresh-faced B-school grads, The Celebrity Apprentice offers up 14 contestants of varying levels of fame, ranging from Vincent Pastore, America’s Got Talent judge Piers Morgan, and Ultimate Fighting Champion Tito Ortiz to Marilu Henner, TV exec Nely Galán, and Olympic softball medalist Jennie Finch. And yes, perennial reality villain Omarosa is back.
You have to hand it to Trump, here borrowing from VH1’s popular formulation: reality shows are moderately more interesting with famous people in the leading roles, no matter how far down on the food chain they may be. But if they’re celebrities, they’re hardly apprentices. This year, the reward for surviving the 14 weeks of elaborate contests is not a prized position somewhere deep inside Trump Enterprises. Instead, a big fat check goes to the champion’s pet charity, and the winner of each week’s challenge gets a smaller donation.
Funding worthy charities is all well and good, but you can tell this isn’t what drives the contestants. With very little at stake personally, they’re pretty much just playing to satisfy their own egos. And believe me, there are plenty to go around. The second episode culminated in a pissing contest among members of the men’s team. The challenge was to create a 30-second spot for a pet food company. The week’s team leader, Gene Simmons, and Stephen Baldwin decided to edit the commercial themselves and sent the rest of the team home for the night. That didn’t sit well with the other five members, who burst back into the editing suite, only to be kicked out again by Simmons. There was no evident reason to ban the five guys from the editing suite (the women’s team managed to edit their commercial as a group), and there was even less cause for those rejected to barge back in, since only Simmons’ charity stood to benefit from that week’s win. The scene devolved into a clash of wannabes, dressed up like a significant power struggle.
The contestants are repeatedly encouraged to think of themselves as important, and expected to use their name recognition in the weekly challenges (this contrasts with past seasons, when bold ideas and sharp business schools were the hot commodities). So far this season, two decisive victories have been handed to the team willing to bank on members’ collective reputations. In the pet food ad, despite the quibbling, the men won after using Lennox Lewis as the star and Trace Adkins as voiceover. The women, who used unknown actors, were easily defeated. The same held true for the previous week’s hot dog-selling challenge, for which the men’s team, sold $52,286 worth by calling friends in their Rolodexes to contribute gobs of money to the charity hot dog cart. The women’s team enthusiastically tried to up-sell strangers on the street, using good business skills. but they came up with less than half the money.
One aspect of the usual Apprentice procedure remains in place, namely, the conflicts between celebrities as they try to curry favor with Trump in the boardroom. Even if they’re performing such outrageousness because they’ve seen previous installments, the showdowns lead to scenes where the emphasis on name-recognition fizzles, and the tension is all about business. Even then, however, it’s hard to forget that there’s little at stake for any of the players, personally or professionally.
And yet both teams act like they’re extremely serious, and all pay due deference to Mr. Trump. This even if some of these celebrities are bigger brands than The Donald, at least among some viewers. (In my college dorm, I saw lots of copies of 1974’s Kiss, fewer of 1988’s The Art of the Deal.) But so far, no one under Trump’s caustic scrutiny has managed to remind the über-businessman that he or she has done just fine so far without his input. I’d like to imagine a day when remaining contestants become self-aware enough to challenge Trump’s heady position—or, better yet, if someone suggests that Trump throw his hat in the ring and put his business acumen side-by-side against theirs. Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to happen.