Since 2004, Donald Trump has been telling and retelling his own story on The Apprentice. At the same time, he invites players to relive his unlikely triumphs, to become rich and famous by acting as he might. The concept was self-serving, as it had to be. After two seasons of The Celebrity Apprentice introduced too many already rich and famous alter egos, he’s brought back the original concept with a timely twist. This season, starting on 16 September, is about “second chances”: its contestants’ careers and lives were significantly affected by the economic collapse of 2008.
While Trump says very little about his own ups and downs, he positions himself right away as the expert on re-launching. But as it turns back to its previous format, The Apprentice engages in a difficult task during these times that remain difficult for most viewers: it asks us to root for unlikable, not yet famous people who feel wronged by the loss of their six-figure salaries.
With a focus on success at all costs, The Apprentice is not exactly feel-good viewing, but it’s always compelling. And the heightened intensity this season’s contenders bring to the game may leave viewers feeling like it’s both fascinating and troubling to watch people on television scramble in the name of money.
Referred to as “struggling,” “unemployed,” and “fledgling,” the new contenders all have stories of economic strife and personal downfall. Though they reportedly did everything right, now they’re doing work that is decidedly below their skills, education, and income expectations. Unsurprisingly, their introductory interviews—explaining these sad states—offer displays of ego rather than generating sympathy. Through these interviews, the viewer is invited to latch on to the idea that the mighty have fallen, but Trump’s next apprentice will rise again, through hard work and determination, not, you know, ruthlessness.
Like other reality shows, this one sets up parallels between their competitions and the “real world,” suggesting that winning will catapult the players to immediate success, and that the challenges are somehow testing useful critical skills. Here those skills are all about Trump. Possibly because the prize is a job with Trump or because he’s is so good at making himself and his brand larger than life, the skills required of the contestants seem designed to weed out people who are unwilling to give their lives over to the Trump Corporation.
In her introduction, Brandy says she went from making $200,000 annually to selling $2 cupcakes out of a truck on the street. While this situation doesn’t seem all that bad in general and even rosy in comparison to her colleagues, who cannot find work at all, her saga is framed in a way that implies working in the cupcake business is insulting for someone with Brandy’s skills and erstwhile earning ability.
As Brandy’s situation and self- description remind us, The Apprentice, for all the talk about teamwork, rewards individual success. The rules of the game demand that everyone assumes a certain ferocity, or risk looking weak. And if the first episode is any indication, this season will be rife with tension and backstabbing. At the introductory boardroom meeting, Trump is quick to remind the wannabes that they are “not dealing with friends.” His advice hardly seems necessary, as the episode’s final boardroom devolves into yelling and finger-pointing even before the losing team is announced.
Before this climax, the premiere sets up several conflicts among personalities that should make for trouble and buzz. Most of the contestants come with huge, bruised egos. A case in point is David, the focus of the premiere episode, who has endured the dissolution of his marriage, the stress of supporting five children, as well as deep humiliation at calling Michigan’s unemployment benefits agency. Here he shows effects of such strain, in angry outbursts at his project manger, Gene.
David’s story is a vivid example of the impact of the financial crisis on the type of person whose self-worth is tied to the number of figures on his or her paycheck and the desperation of the contestants to restore their lives to a pre-2008 state. And, of course, even if David and his rivals haven’t adapted to their recently shrunken lives, they are expected to adapt to Trump’s demands on their talents and skills, even if the tasks are outside their frames of reference. In the first challenge, the teams are asked to design a “modern” office space. While some contestants, like James, discover latent talent, others struggle with diverse issues, from not understanding the term “modern design” to neglecting to tape down rugs and causing the camera operator to take a nasty spill while the Donald is judging the work spaces.
Aside from executing the basic demands of each task, the contestants must also learn to work collaboratively, despite their inclinations to resist others’ authority. While this tends to happen on every season of The Apprentice, if the premiere is any indication, this cast is particularly aggressive and scheming. Within minutes of working together, cast members are openly creating scenarios in which they can shift blame onto other team members and using Don Jr. and Ivanka’s visits as opportunities to tattle and to create conflicting narratives about team dynamics.
Especially ripe for controversy and maybe a few ratings points are the show’s subtle gender tensions. As always, the teams on The Apprentice are divided into male and female teams, and certain men, like Clint, act out. He speculates to his teammates—self-described “alpha males”—that the women’s meeting probably includes “cat fighting” over a team name. When the men note that they’re “supposed” to be good at interior design, it’s not long before they’re wondering how men might be working for female project managers and arguments about whether a man or a woman “deserves” to be the apprentice.
Before the episode’s familiar opening soundtrack—the O’Jays singing “For the Love of Money”—Trump announces, “I hate what I’m seeing and I’m going to do something about it.” It’s a promise he reiterates, the premise for this season. Both teams take it as motivation and individual players claim that this game as the only path back to their old lives. Based on early boardroom behavior and on-task performances, however, the viewer gets the feeling that Trump will repeat these words in a different context as the season progresses, as he fires and eventually hires someone willing to do anything to get back on top.