Reality TV on the whole is pretty weak: Artlessly directed pranks and gags aimed at the
lowest common denomiator. (I'm not saying I've never indulged in the lesser reality
shows, I'm just saying I'm not proud about it.) But if there's one guy who seems to
really have it figured out it's Mark Burnett, creator of three of the better reality
shows to air over the last few years, including fascinating culinary melodrama The
Restaurant and the king of all reality shows, Survivor. Burnett's most
obvious stamp on his work is his amazing use of editing to boil hundreds - even
thousands - of hours of footage down to an image, a cut, an instance, that sums up
everything his show is about. His other strong suit is his ability to draw compelling
characters out of the endless parade of fame whores that flaunt their dubious wares in
front of his cameras.
Of his three major shows, however, only one contains another character with the volume,
intensity and attention-grabbing self-confidence to wrench the show out of Burnett's
hands, and that's Donald Trump, the real-estate mogul/New York caricature who headlines
The Apprentice. The premise of The Apprentice is, of course, that The
Donald, as he's known by his "friends" (i.e. those who read about him in Page Six), is
looking for some young turk to run one of his numerous splinter corps. With the help of
Burnett, The Donald assembles a cast of 16 wannabe business mavens to cohabitate in a
fancy suite at Trump Tower and compete in a series of tasks designed to see who can think on their
feet the best, make the smartest decisions, lead the most effectively, and come out
This is a format familiar from dozens of similar shows and The Apprentice
doesn't necessarily do it much differently. But it's the two men running the show who
make it special.
Having watched about the second half of this first season of The Apprentice when
it aired on NBC I was expecting to scan through a bunch of episodes for this review
basically to make sure the discs played and looked good. Instead I found myself once
again drawn into the complex series of back-stabs, double-crosses, shell-games and
bizarre behaviors that make up this season. While I'd trust very few of these
applicants with the task of feeding my lizard, it's interesting to see how they mix
playing at being businessmen and women with playing a reality show game. They're not
totally dissimilar pursuits but they differ in some key ways.
(WARNING: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPHS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. Do not read them if you
want to watch The Apprentice without knowing some important events.)
If someone told you that one of the contestants of The Apprentice turns out to
be a psychopath, after the first couple of episodes you'd probably think you had Sam
pegged as the biggest wackjob. While it's true that Sam is uncomfortably insane (It's
almost like letting John Hinkley Jr. participate in a game show called "Who Wants to
Meet Jodie Foster?") no amount of couch potatoing prepared audiences for the hurricane
that became saboteur Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth, a self-important former White House aide who
condescended to everyone on the show including Trump and his viceroys. Sam may have
started off the show in far left field, but his shenanigans (which endeared him only to
a couple of the more humor equipped players) got him booted early. Omarosa managed to
cling on to the show for an unbelievably long amount of time considering how hated she
was and, in the end, really affected the outcome between the two far more deserving
Omarosa, possibly the best villain in the short history of reality TV, showed how far
you could go with so little, but it's possible that this is one area where Burnett's
hand lay heavy. Unlike Survivor, where the contestants choose who stays and who
goes and achievement based shows like The Amazing Race, where you either come in
last or you don't, the sole deciding factor of whether someone gets the boot here is
the whim of The Donald and his celebrated "You're fired." It's entirely possible that
Trump, with or without Burnett's direct input, made some decisions based on what would
make good television. And Omarosa definitely made outstanding television.
Some of the
earlier boots, however, were as despicable but without the compelling nastiness: Dr.
David, a snotty MD/MBA brags about how during med school he realized that making money
was more important than treating patients, and Jason, a slum lord from Detroit, talks
about kicking tenants out because they're late with the rent (a reality of being a
landlord, but save the glee for when the cameras aren't rolling, bub.) These two were
dead-weight and get the heave-ho almost immediately.
Perhaps most amusing among the
non-starters, however, is Tammy, a wildcard who asks potential clients during
challenges embarrassing and insane questions (like if chef Rocco DiSpirito might rent a
private jet and French villa to entertain a charity raffle winner at his own expense)
since she starts out with one of the best ideas anyone has on the show: A sexually
provocative ad campaign for an airline. And in the I-can't-tell-if-she's-good-or-bad category are Heidi and Katrina. Heidi, an
abrasive loudmouth who loves dropping the F-bomb has moments of empathy (particularly when she gets some bad news from home and
handles it like a trooper) but can also grate. And Katrina, a real estate broker with a collection of mini-skirts that Heather
Locklear would find slutty, can be fun but, honey, if you have to stick your finger in someone's face and scream about what a
good person you are there's got to be something wrong.
Of the better players, there are actually some pretty decent minds at work. I'm not
saying they're brilliant every step of the way, but the players who eventually reach
the final five are all pretty sharp, from sly country boy Troy, smart and canny Amy and
dapper Kwame to affable salesman Nick and quick-thinking Bill. The end run of this
show, unlike many others, finds the most capable players dominating and, for once, the
best player does win.
One last pleasure in the cast worth mentioning is the interesting little love affair that develops between manly men Kwame and Troy. Troy's country boy charms and Kwame's urban slickness are an interesting match and their friendship (and more than a little homo-erotic closeness) really add a zing to the second half of the season. Watching Troy spot Kwame while he does basketball hoop pull-ups is one of the most oddly tender moments in any reality show I've seen. Way more intimate than anything that passes between Amy and Nick during their uncomfortably played-up dalliance.
(Ok, I'm done spoiling.)
As for the rest of the show's cast, there's nothing but quality. Trump's representatives Carolyn and George range from cranky to
bemused at the antics of the contestants. They really provide the show with an air of dignity and humor. And Trump himself is
hysterical, from his constant grandiose braggadocio to the sly self-deprecating remarks he throws in from time to time. His
horrendously tacky lifestyle (which is like gold-plated nirvana to the greedy kids in the game) and his pompous demeanor make
great TV, even if seemingly half his lines have been overdubbed to more blatantly spell out the rules of the game.
mention needs to be made of the show's only other regular cast member: Robin. She's the secretary who sits outside the boardroom
and tells the contestants when it's time to go in and find out who's fired. But her scant shots are obviously taken from a
different location and cut into footage of the contestants sitting on a set. Plus her saucy way of reading the lines "Ok Mr.
Trump. You can go in now" is just too damn funny. Every time she appears it's a laugh riot.
The DVD set replicates the show very well, including the "previously on" segments and
the final parting words. One annoying omission is the replacement of the O'Jays' "For
The Love of Money" in the opening credits with some ridiculous song. This is surely a
rights issue, but it does hurt the show somewhat. But as a comprehensive viewing experience, through all 15 episodes, The
Apprentice is solid entertainment. Watching the players' personalities and strategies come out through tasks ranging from
selling lemonade to organizing huge events, is really enjoyable.
The fullscreen video looks slightly overly sharp. This is on-the-go reality TV, so the
image isn't always going to be perfect, but there's some additional sharpening at work
here and it results in a somewhat degraded image. (Trump's closeups, of course, are
slightly softer than everyone else's, so make of that what you will...)
The Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack is decent, if taxed at times by rough location
source material and unbalanced voice recording. It's an acceptable audio track. There
are also English, Spanish and French subtitles.
There's a pretty comprehensive list of extras on the final disc. While the screener
disc did not feature the extras in final format and may not reflect the exact content, it did give a decent sense of the
roughly two hours of bonus features that make up a really enjoyable package.
There's a behind-the-scenes segment that
features Burnett and Trump talking about getting the show together. It includes a tour of the living suite when it was still raw
space led by Trump. Revealingly, it shows that the boardroom set was inside the suite, which means that when The Donald said
"It's either up to the suite or down to the street" he was half-fibbing. Also Burnett talks about how he got the idea for the
show while watching ants swarming during a taping of Survivor. Interesting.
Another great extra is a highlight reel for each candidate that includes footage from the initial tape submitted to the show,
auditions, and the show itself. There is some very interesting stuff in here. Additionally, submission tapes for each candidate
are included (with some editing by the producers.) It's tough to know why some were chosen, with the half-assed tapes they
submitted (Nick in particular) but some like Katrina, Amy and Kwame put together very funny pieces on their favorite subjects:
Some of Trump's cliche-ridden advice snippets are compiled into one segment but more interesting is a sequence with advice from
Carolyn and George, who didn't always get to fully voice their opinions during the show.
The complete parting words from
all the fired contestants are included (they appear in truncated form during the season in the closing credits of each show) as
do additional interviews with each candidate offering advice to future contestants.
A nice set of interviews with the two
finalists is included, although a promised preview of the upcoming second season was not on the screener disc.
A couple of different segments with outtakes and segments that didn't make the final cut are included, as is a lame music video
for the crappy theme song that appears on the DVD (but didn't appear in the broadcast.)
The Apprentice is a suprisingly excellent show. With two strong personalities at the helm and a cast of type-As, there's
no doubt that all the clashes were inevitable. This could make a good rental or the extra features might make it worth a