All Dressed Up… And Catering to the Wrong Audience

One good thing about me, Dave, is that I don’t have a long memory for bad things. So I’m trying very hard to put it out of my mind and get on with the future.
— Martha Stewart, The Late Show With David Letterman

Here’s what the new television season has taught us — once more — about Martha Stewart: the more things change, the more she stays the same. America’s chief homemaker/former CEO wasted no time, post-prison, reclaiming her ignoble role in the national dialogue. And despite — or perhaps helped by — an avalanche of buzz for her two new series, Martha looks to be failing yet again in her attempts to have it all.

Daytime Martha is garnering okay numbers, but Tyra Banks’ new talk show is performing better. And her Apprentice debuted to the lowest original-ep ratings yet for the Burnett/Trump franchise, attracting a tad more than seven million viewers. Hell, not even CBS could make bucks off the Martha mystique: Martha Behind Bars, Cybill Shepherd’s second turn impersonating Stewart, was met with a great big yawn on Sunday, 25 September. (And deservedly so: the title proved a big tease, as her prison time was just a snippet of the overall film.)

Amid all this apparent disinterest, you can almost feel the earth tremble as millions of petty, threatened Martha-haters worry that they might not have the queen of Turkey Hill to kick around for much longer. Sure, they love to see her fall, but not completely out of view! Whom will they mock? Whose age-old divorce will they dredge up again and again as proof that the perfect entertainer is a lonely shrew?

In fact, I’ve never much respected the widespread antipathy toward Martha and her housekeeping empire. In this age of HGTV and ReadyMade magazine, resenting Martha for her can-do compulsiveness strikes me as quaint. That she’s driven to accumulate every DIY skill under the sun is her cross to bear, not mine. That she’s willing to share her skills — granting me the opportunity to pick and choose and riff on MSLO ideas — is my good fortune. My take on Martha casts her as neither judgmental relative nor nosy neighbor. She’s Professor Martha, a home ec Ph.D., the kind of impressive, intimidating, enlightening mentor you admire from the back of the classroom, where it’s safe.

Pre-prison, the syndicated Living program was Martha’s classroom. In that land of bone folders and tasteful colors, she stayed on point, presenting viewers with dozens of ideas for invitations, Halloween decorations, and easy sewing projects. For viewers of limited interest — for example, bakers unmoved by the yoga craze, green thumbs who didn’t share Martha’s devotion to pets — the episodes were hit or miss. And yet, there was no denying each segment could be helpful or educational to someone.

On Mark Burnett’s Martha, that’s no longer the case. Saddled with a live audience and a revolving door of celebrities, it’s a more seat-of-her-pants affair, cue cards (Amy Grant awkwardly alluded to hers while juggling Three Wishes promotion with the construction of a pocket message board) to the contrary. Martha has jumped rope (only to find herself endearingly, humanly out-of-breath for her opening), spent an hour in a red wig, played show and tell with the audience and shared her prison microwave recipes with David Spade, all in pursuit of a livelier vibe. “The way we’ve been doing our show for 12 years has been beautiful and informative and instructional and useful,” Martha told reporters at a pre-launch press conference, “but now we are able to intersperse a lot more, I guess, what Mark always calls ‘fun.'”

Do we want fun from Martha? We watch to see her impatient perfectionism peek through as one of her underlings comes on board to share a recipe or show off a project, and we watch to learn. Celebrities are fine — Elmo, Conan O’Brien, and others were regular guests on the previous show, too — so long as they’re not too much in the way or too baldly stopping by to promote a new project. It was a good sign when Martha emphasized that her show had no couch — she and her guests would be doing things, not sitting around, she said. Unfortunately, the things they do don’t much matter. Cooking and craft segments with Conan, P. Diddy and others now play just as they would on Late Night or The Tonight Show: the “how-to” doesn’t much matter, except as a setup for mistakes, laughs and banter.

Non-celebrity segments fare better. Burnett has padded out the program with off-site pre-taped visits to “regular folk” (Martha drops in for dinner), and these are often compelling: I might not want Martha en route to my messy house, but I’m good with watching her as a guest in yours. More intriguing was the 16 September episode celebrating Martha Senior’s 91st birthday. The audience was filled with relatives and friends from the senior center Martha’s mother visits once a week, and each segment focused on the birthday girl herself or on plans for throwing a party. Surrounded by familiar faces, including baker John Baricelli, who managed the kitchen on Living and now is part of MSLO’s Everyday Food program, Martha finally projected some ease with her show’s new format. Talking up John’s new bakery, she couldn’t help teasing that he must have learned something working for her for eight years: “I take a little credit, John.”

Though Martha looks to be having “fun,” MSLO loyalists aren’t pleased with the road she’s chosen for her big comeback. Fans are writing into to bemoan the loss of Living‘s quality content in favor of superficial interaction with celebs and audience members alike (“I miss the Martha who took the high road and was, yes, elitist,” wrote one). It’s an amusing development, given that the first Apprentice episode saw Martha send an obnoxious project leader packing because he’d failed to suss out and “connect with” the target audience.

Clearly Mark Burnett deserves a pink slip, too. The one-time producing wunderkind seems to have mistaken the hype surrounding Martha’s trial and imprisonment for evidence of widespread devotion to the woman herself. It was the scandal — whether perceived as just comeuppance or egregious railroading of a strong female — that had cable news screen-crawls on incessant loop. Now that Martha’s done her time, done the talk show circuit (playing the coquette with Letterman, she claimed not to remember precisely why she was convicted), and reclaimed her throne, there’s little left to pique the public’s interest. She’s back to her sizeable base, and Burnett’s done wonders pissing them off.

If Martha is uneven, Stewart’s Apprentice simply wastes everyone’s time, as well as its host’s talents. Martha’s well-established appeal lies in her insistence on doing everything herself, at least on camera. The Apprentice format isn’t built that way. Most important, it isn’t built for her, and Martha is too authentic, too distinctive, to be squeezed into someone else’s role. In so many ways, she’s the anti-Trump, matching his pomposity and garish taste with cool conviction and soothing color palettes (who wouldn’t like to see her make over his hideous, ostentatious penthouse?). Just so, she has done with her Apprentice what she instructs followers to do wherever they go: she’s added “good” taste and superficial niceties, replacing his blunt, chauvinistic assessments with courtesy, character-building rewards (in “Business is Blooming,” Team Primarius “won” a community service outing) and handwritten letters of dismissal (all viewable on the show’s website).

The series was promoted as if it would show the other side of Martha — the business diva, the former stockbroker, the no-nonsense bitch who got herself sent to prison — but really, as her daytime theme song reminds us, she’s the same girl we’ve always half-known. And Apprentice remains the same hothouse catfight — and fading franchise — that Trump offers on Thursday nights. Some business truths (and stereotypes) do emerge — the team of corporate types are so far wiping the floor with their scattered, infighting creative opponents — but Martha remains every bit the host to the end. She keeps smiling, giddy with her freedom, her reclaimed empire, and her brief primetime turn in the non-Court TV spotlight. If we know anything about her after all these years of layer cakes, centerpieces, and more “good things,” it is this: the minute her guests go home, she’ll be right back to work.