The Apprentice

My favorite firing on The Apprentice came two episodes into the second season. Bradford, who had earned immunity because he led his team to victory, incurred the sudden wrath of the Donald. Confident in his own performance, Bradford relinquished his immunity, but Trump turned on him like a shark scenting chum. He called Bradford “stupid,” chastised him for giving up immunity, and fired him.

Granted, Bradford erred in giving up his immunity, but Trump’s firing and not someone more deserving reads like a mission statement for The Apprentice. The point is to stab your opponent in the back before she stabs you. It’s like high school: the pretty people with money, having conquered those who lack both, turn on each other.

At the start of this fifth season, Trump greeted the contestants on a windswept runway and selected project managers for the first competition. Though the new cast is promoted as having an “international” flavor, they look much like they have in the past, the only difference being the addition of a Brit and Russian to the standard WASPs and yuppies. Tarek led the Gold Rush team for the first challenge; he looks like a brawny Orlando Bloom and enjoys mentioning that he’s in MENSA at every available opportunity. Allie, a perky blonde, headed the Synergy team. They were tasked with selling Sam’s Club memberships, and with the bombastic score and sweeping camera movements that have become hallmarks of reality TV, the games began.

Things quickly progressed from predictable to crazy, though, as it became clear that Brent was making everyone else on Team Synergy uncomfortable. He’s the designated “wild card,” appearing completely average and lacking social skills and the murder-your-enemies vibe Trump solicits. Combine these with his “wacky” ideas for the Sam’s promotions, like a karaoke machine, and it’s obvious the team isn’t looking forward to spending the rest of the season with the guy. You might even feel sorry for him: in an interview during the first episode, Brent said that being picked last felt like he was back in high school gym class.

Gold Rush decided to entice customers by giving away duffle bags with nothing in them, which didn’t sit well with Carolyn and George, the cronies Trump uses as his “eyes and ears” to report back and help steer the boardroom meetings. Gold Rush lost the contest by three memberships, which sent Tarek into a Real World-style hissy fit. He brought three people back to the boardroom with him: Summer, who was supposed to call restaurants to drum up business for the Sam’s promotion; Lenny (the Russian from New Jersey), who didn’t do anything wrong and in fact helped guide the team’s promotional blimp around the area near the store; and Lee, a 22-year-old business school grad told Tarek their team lacked a plan to win.

In the first boardroom scene for this season, Trump ran his usual circles around the four contestants, acting as if he valued their opinions but really just demonstrating for TV viewers that, for all the talk about producers’ input, he does the actual firing, which he clearly loves. Lee managed to hold his own, and Lenny made a few deadpan cracks, his thick accent making him sound like a Bond villain, but the die had been cast: the team had turned against Summer, so out she went.

The second episode was almost a carbon copy of the first, with Brent again set up to fail. The teams are supposed to harass tourists in Times Square to get them to send text messages and learn about the new Gillette razor, but the job is irrelevant. The goal here is to get the team to eliminate Brent, who’s still trying his best to make people uncomfortable, including doing the robot while wearing a bathrobe (don’t ask). But again, Trump proved that hell really is other people: after Synergy lost, he fired clueless team leader Pepi and uptight lawyer Stacy, leaving Brent in place for another week.

Whether Summer or Pepi or Stacy or any of them should have been fired is irrelevant. The point is, they were led to believe they just might make it another week before Trump gave them the axe. After five seasons, it’s clear that viewers don’t tune in to watch strangers unite to overcome personal obstacles to serve a greater good. The show delivers emotional carnage, and as voyeuristic fare goes, that’s the top. It’s going to be an eventful 16 weeks for the remaining applicants, who act as if their looks and book smarts have earned them in a place in the higher levels of human existence. Brent is clearly a loose cannon, but the producers don’t want to lose him too quickly, since everyone else seems to get along with each other, and keeping Brent in the mix could spark some of the team members into the kind of on-camera tantrums you wouldn’t expect of educated adults. It’s childish and foolish, but then, so is high school.