The ego and his show
Tomorrow night, the second season of The Apprentice will end. Those of you reading this in 2004 will instantly understand what I'm talking about, but on the odd chance this article survives another century, a few words of explanation are in order. The Apprentice is a television drama (of the "reality" subgenre) in which contestants compete to land a job with the business magnate Donald Trump. Each week, two teams try their hand at a commercial task; each week, a member of the more poorly performing squad is fired. In this way, the field is narrowed to a victor, who wins a chance to work for one of the most egocentric blowhards in the country. The losers are left with nothing but a three-month audition for a career in show business.
While the first round of The Apprentice was a blockbuster hit, the second has slid in the Nielsen ratings. The standard beefs with The Apprentice 2 are that its contestants are less likable and its product placements more obvious than in the first season. I can't dispute either complaint, but I think a deeper change has been at work as well. Under all the cheese and Trumpian self-promotion, the first season was about achievement. The second season is about corporate politics. I got the impression that the finalists last time would make good entrepreneurs. This time, they'd make good middle-management toadies.
Like any generalization, this one needs to be tempered. Players still forged alliances in season one, the boardroom was still an exercise in navigating Trump's mind games, and everyone brown-nosed the boss. But as the players' ranks grew smaller, the elimination process seemed to have something to do with who was more skilled at commerce. In the second season, ability is important, but this time the skills being rewarded include backstabbing, manipulation, and fealty to the in-group. Real competence remains important, and it's no accident that the team most caught up in internal politics—the one that sometimes resembled a sorority—usually lost. It's also no accident that the program devoted much more time to that group's dysfunctions than to the less dramatically interesting dynamics of the more successful team. The theory behind the casting and editing, I suspect, was that viewers want to see soap operas and power struggles. If so, this season's ratings ought to undermine that theory.
In a way, that's too bad. Writing in his weblog Superfluities, George Hunka suggested in September that The Apprentice is best enjoyed as a satire. "What Trump and co-producer Mark Burnett…have unwittingly concocted," he wrote, "is a Moliere comedy for the 21st century, lacking only verse and concision. The contestants are, the lot of them, scheming social climbers utterly crippled in their efforts by their own stupidity and egotism. The Donald himself is an arbitrary, capricious figure (I'd call him mercurial, but this would insult Mercury), homely and arrogant but a sap for a shapely pair of legs. Much to their surprise, Trump and Burnett have come up with a satire of the very business world to which they kneel and pay homage." On that level, the second Apprentice is much more effective than the first: If you want to chuckle at the ladder-climbers, it's much easier if they don't have admirable characteristics that keep getting in the way.
This season, like last season, the two finalists are a contestant with an entrepreneurial background and a contestant with lots of education; this season, like last season, the man with real experience will probably win. The market rewards competence, even if the camera finds incompetence more interesting. But the real self-made men and women have already been eliminated this time; the survivors are creatures of large organizations, one a lawyer and one a soldier.
You'll forgive me if next year I watch Junkyard Wars instead.