The Apprentice

Regular airtime: Thursdays, 9pm ET (NBC)
Executive Producers: Mark Burnett and Donald Trump

by Justin Ravitz

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The Apprentice and America’s Next Top Model Season 2 mark the maturation of reality TV’s subjects. The shows’ celebrity masterminds, Tyra Banks and Donald Trump, have shifted the terms of a genre that for too long has encouraged gnawing at animal parts, mate-seeking, and endless displays of stupidity, selfishness, and dysfunction. Contestants are not just looking for prize money or fleeting fame: they’re looking for work.

True, the participators on The Apprentice and America’s Next Top Model are as desperate and ridiculous as any castaway, housemate, or bachelor/ette. The Apprentice‘s recently dismissed Sam was reviled as a pubescent-voiced schemer, an irritating Gollum in a three-piece suit; on Model, Shandi, the gawky Kansas City schoolmarm, apparently aches to doff her glasses and reveal the glam swan beneath. Yet, the rewards — a job with Trump, a modeling contract — give the competitions a refreshing pragmatism that befits the hostile job market of 2004.

This approach also serves the interests of Banks and Trump, re-actualizing their own celebrity in ways quite different from Jessica Simpson or Richard Hatch. Rather than exposing the icky details of their domestic lives or submitting to humiliating contests, these “hosts” get to strut within their professional milieus. Like Botticelli’s Venus, Banks first appears out of nowhere on the windswept U.S.S. Intrepid; this supermodel-turned-mogul watches over her charges like a sassy sister-friend with words of encouragement (“Y’all fly!”) and wisdom (“You have to live, breathe, and eat this.”).

The Donald, by contrast, makes frequent check-in calls from his cross-town helicopter, calling himself “the world’s worst boss,” a somewhat lovable patriarch lurking in dark-mahogany boardrooms and his Babylonian penthouse. “You have to want the Trump lifestyle,” wannabe apprentice Kristi remarks, eyeing the 24-karat toilet flushers in his Trump Tower palace. Unlike, say, Simon Cowell, Banks and Trump present themselves as sympathetic, inspiring mentors, having worked their way up sky-high ladders.

Both set in New York’s mythologized urban jungle, the shows recycle clichés of competitive reality TV, requiring contestants to perform inane tasks that take on a feverish intensity (a citywide lemonade sale, an impromptu fashion show aboard an aircraft carrier); talk dirt in “confessionals”; be judged each week by a tribunal; and endure cruel exit processionals when they lose. On Apprentice, Trump barks, “You’re fired,” and the pink-slipped party must grab his or her wheelie-suitcase, take the down elevator, and catch a cab (no more limos). On Model, Banks hands out headshots to weekly survivors, while the empty-handed poser quietly slips away to pack up her knockoffs and go home. Both programs quickly exploit the gender stereotypes also synonymous with the genre: the men of Apprentice are inept, non-communicative frat brothers in need of discipline, while the women of both Apprentice and Model are catty, emotional, and sometimes strategically ‘”sexy.”

Model begins with 12 would-be catwalkers who prove their mettle each week in simulated photo shoots, fashion shows, and other tests of talent, “potential,” and “versatility.” They live and spar together at a posh downtown loft, with designated “bling-bling,” “punk-funk,” and “mod” areas. Striking, uptight African American Camille chides her new roomies for stealing toilet paper during a Tyra-sponsored dinner at Tavern on the Green, surmising, “Maybe I’m just more educated.” When Jenascia sleeps late the morning of their first photo shoot, April half-heartedly entreats the others to wait for her. They don’t, so Jenascia arrives hours late and narrowly avoids elimination. Lucky for her, plus-size Anna won’t go along with the Adam and Eve-themed shoot, which involves body jewelry and paint, a nude male model, and little else. “I’m just trying to be Christ-like,” she says, by way of explanation. The four judges, including gleefully tactless ’70s supermodel Janice Dickinson, have choice words for tardy, too-short Jenascia, but Anna’s pious refusal to sex it up means she’s the one sent home.

Sex and ambition also make bedfellows on The Apprentice, where eight-member teams are assembled along gender lines (this like the most recent Survivor, also produced by Mark Burnett). Challenges pit the female Protégé Corporation against the male Versacorp. Their varied pedigrees imbue this Machievellian struggle with a layer of class tensions: David holds both an MD and an MBA, while Jessie is a home-schooled orphan; projects-born Omarosa is a former Clinton White House staffer finishing her Ph.D., while cowboy Troy is a self-made businessman with only a high school diploma. Each week, the losing team elects three members for possible banishment, complete with scathing commentary. After the elected parties beg for clemency POW-style, Trump, flanked by a white-haired henchman and blonde henchwoman, renders the final verdict.

Despite skirmishes caused by control-freak Omarosa, who battles with hot-tempered Ereka and idealist Katrina, the women trounce the men in three consecutive rounds, employing their “feminine wiles” and not a little strategic thinking. In the first, they quadruple their profits by giving out kisses and phone numbers to the midtown men who buy their $5 lemonade. In the second, they construct a brilliantly unsubtle ad campaign for a private jet company, stressing the similarities between male genitalia and airplane parts, and wearing fetching stewardess’ outfits at the presentation. Lesson learned: it takes balls to win the rat race.

The uninspired men, meanwhile, suffered near-comic meltdown. When they couldn’t find any customers at the deserted South Street Seaport, Sam attempted to sell one cup of lemonade for $1000. In the second challenge, as the men’s team scrambled to throw together a shoddy ad campaign, Sam napped on the office floor, his manic bursts of energy apparently catching up with him.

After he failed the “put up or shut up” test as Project Manager in Round Three, Sam finally went home. In his post-Apprentice life, however, this pitiable villain has worked some surprising savvy, redeeming his dignity by proposing, successfully, to his girlfriend of five years in front of Katie Couric on the Today Show. His 15 minutes may be quickly expiring, but Sam is going out with a happily-ever-after bang, perhaps the best success test of any reality star.

As cringe-worthy as Sam remains, it might behoove the remaining junior tycoons and mini-models to consider his example. For all their calculated cunning and preening, all but one Apprentice and Model contestant will eventually have to formulate the most humbling strategy of all: a Plan B, one that will work in the real world.