The Apprentice

Roger Holland

More than any other episode, The Apprentice premiere is so consumed with scene setting and its money-shot boardroom footage that there is precious little focus on the challenge itself.

The Apprentice

Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET
Cast: Donald Trump
Network: NBC

Producers Mark Burnett and Donald Trump were both disappointed with the third season of The Apprentice. I wasn't, but I can see where The Donald and The Mark were coming from, especially if their ratings were down. Season Three's "street smart" candidates lacked the polish to triumph against the "book smart". Come the final challenge, it was obvious that clever, quiet, and hardworking Kendra would wipe the floor with mouthy, intolerant Tana, and so it came to pass.

So, Season Four features no selection gimmicks. Forget the rumors about black versus white (Trump said, "Whether people like that idea or not, it is somewhat reflective of our very vicious world"), forget East Coast versus West Coast, forget Shi'ite versus Sunni, forget Alien versus Predator. This time out, Trump says he simply went looking for the smartest and most successful people he could find. Provided, of course, that he got an acceptable ethnic mix and a host of sexually attractive candidates -- including beauty queen Jennifer Murphy, a former Miss Oregon and a top 10 finisher in Miss USA 2004. Indeed, in promoting the caliber of his contestants, the Trumpmeister lists beauty before brains.

Of course, no one watching really gives a damn about the business credentials of the candidates. As with all the best reality TV, what we want are friends with benefits. We want gossip. We want infighting. We want to pick our favorites and then change horses in midstream. We want vaulting ambition. We want spectacular failures. And, above all else, we want to see the right people win and all those losers, who think they're so much better than we are, take the elevator of shame down to the cab ride of denial.

So let's set aside the game's illogical and often surreal business challenges and talk instead about what really matters: Der Trumpenführer and his cast of minions.

Considering that Trump is only solvent today because his father was richer than Croesus, Sir Donald of the Unfeasible Do has to have a very special arrogance to front a TV show about succeeding in business. Either that, or he's mocking himself, or he's totally down with his homeboy H.L. Mencken: casinos and real estate can be tricky, but no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Regardless, the Big T continues to pontificate, judge, and revel in his own importance. He accepts the endless sycophancy of his contestants and employees with a nonchalance that is almost regal in its lack of self-awareness.

In this season's premiere, Trump strides purposely out of Trump Tower (has this man even heard of Freud?). He leaps into his Trump stretch limo, oozes through traffic to his Trump helicopter, and relaxes intensely for the five minute hop to his New Jersey Trump National Golf Club. He talks confidently to camera throughout, "I'm looking for someone who's a tough negotiator, I'm looking for some who's a dynamic leader, I'm looking for... the Apprentice". He sports a customized Blue Steel -- the look with which Derek Zoolander brought down the Berlin Wall -- carefully modified for the older billionaire with no taste in ties.

We meet the 18 candidates out on the 10th green. There's far too many to mention or even notice them all at this early stage, but following the conventions of the form, we are quickly introduced to the handful of players with what will pass for starring roles in this opening free-form look-at-me-athon. Just as we know full well that one of El Trumpidente's weekly business lesson for the under 12s ("Getting along with people is very important") will provide the episode's moral, so we can be pretty sure that one of these six will be going home before they've taken the top off their toothpaste.

Kristi, a mother at 16, is young, Southern, sporty, peppy and cute. She's also inspired to succeed by her motherhood, and will doubtless dedicate any and every success to her daughter. Oh, and God. Clay is gay, doesn't do irony, and is keen to let us know it: "I think that being openly gay is going to be a huge advantage for me. I don't make it a point to tell everyone I meet, but I think that when people find out that I'm gay they're going to go, 'Oh. Okay'. It's not going to threaten the guys, and the girls are going to become my instant best friends." Perhaps he should've applied for The Apprentice: Martha instead?

Melissa is proud of her background in competitive sports, and assertive. She says she's "intimidating", others might call her "disruptive and negative" (Tomayto, tomahto). Alla came to the U.S. from Russia in her early teens. She started with nothing and is now a multi-millionaire thanks to her chain of Las Vegas spas and salons. I know what you're thinking. I'm thinking it too. Randal has five academic degrees in engineering, business, and technology from Rutgers, Oxford and MIT (three). He's quiet, competent and impressive on paper. Markus is the oldest candidate, with the youngest hairstyle. He's obviously stressed to his eyeballs and this season's early prime delusional: "Mr. Trump and I have a lot in common. I would say that to some extent we're kindred spirits. Mr. Trump and I will end up being business partners at some point, I'm confident of it." I suspect the only thing Markus and Mr. Trump have in common is their interest in hair sculpture.

Once the First Memorial Donald Trump Race War had been ruled out on grounds of political sensitivity, there was obviously only one way left for The Apprentice to pick its starting teams. It's Girls Against Boys again -- a conflict decidedly more than "somewhat reflective of our very vicious [corporate] world". Apparently Trump finds it easier to tell the teams apart this way.

More than any other episode, The Apprentice premiere is so consumed with scene setting and its money-shot boardroom footage that there is precious little focus on the challenge itself, which is to operate a day of specialist exercise classes at a Manhattan gym. But it's already clear that this series boasts some of nastiest and most aggressive candidates since Ross Perot. Especially on Team Boy.

I love this show. I love taking a cheap holiday in its Cliffs Notes world of big business. And I love the reliability of its format. This season, however, it looks like there will be one or two small surprises. The first is a modification to the rules that should be obvious or even inevitable to aficionados of the show. The second? Well, wait and see. As Trump so accurately explains, people don't change. And neither do reality TV shows. The minor amendments to the format might make The Apprentice a little more fun at times, but they aren't going to change anybody's fundamental point of view. If you're a fan, sit back and enjoy. If you're not, why have you even read this far?

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