“The Apprentice” is getting old. It’s about to start its fifth season — as “American Idol” just did — but unlike that show, its momentum has not been building. Sliding ratings and decreasing buzz showed no signs of improvement last fall, when two “Apprentice” versions aired concurrently: Donald Trump’s fourth season, and Martha Stewart’s only season.
Despite this, the show's epic score, cinematic establishing shots, and compelling narratives make it one of the best-produced of all reality shows. And it still manages to generate discussion, especially when its contestants do stupid things that Donald Trump flogs them for in the boardroom.
What, then, is hurting the show? First, it’s increasingly apparent that while “The Apprentice” was one of the first shows to offer a talent-based competition that took place somewhere besides a stage, the series is no “Project Runway,” where drama and entertainment come in the wake of talent. Here, talent seems to be peripheral to drama, and business skills aren’t really on display. But this hasn’t hurt similar talent-based shows such as UPN’s “America’s Next Top Model” or FOX’s “Hell’s Kitchen.”
The show's challenges don’t focus on contestants' talents. More often than not, they seem to be about demonstrating entry-level marketing (create an ad campaign for a sponsor’s amazing new product!) or sales (sell this sponsor’s amazing new product!) skills. The challenges blend into one another, as do the first four seasons. Which season did they redesign the Pepsi bottle? Promote Dairy Queen? Taster’s Choice? Sell new Whoppers? Create a marketing campaign for Crest? (The answers: 2, 4, 3, 3, and 2.)
The first season, when few companies were willing to pay for exposure, actually had some of the most creative challenges; one week, the candidates had to search for good deals on products during a scavenger hunt. In subsequent seasons, the challenges mostly became poorly disguised infomercials.
More significantly, the series is designed to hire an apprentice to run a company, not make photocopies or run around on the street with a sandwich board begging people to sample some crap.
Selling lemonade does not a CEO make
Thus, only the final challenge is really a good test of what it takes to be a CEO. Although “Apprentice” knock-offs “The Benefactor” and “The Rebel Billionaire” were less interesting, their challenges more often required extreme creativity and ingenuity, and challenged the contestants mentally in ways “The Apprentice” has never attempted.
The candidates themselves may have impressive resumes, but they’re often grossly incompetent, with many clearly cast for their potential to create drama. The casting became so problematic that Donald Trump denounced the cast of the third season and selected nearly the entire fourth season cast himself. He did the same thing for this new season. But that didn’t help “The Apprentice 4”: the show seemed to tread water despite its controversial conclusion, during which Trump hired his most qualified candidate yet, Randal Pinkett.
"The Apprentice" certainly has other flaws, primarily Trump’s boardroom lectures, which are so often obviously recorded in post-production that for all we know, Trump is actually reciting his grocery list to the candidates and scripting his rationale for the firing later. The show also repeatedly and excessively flaunts corporate partners whose products become more than just part of the storylines. While both aren’t befitting of a series of this quality and pedigree, other reality shows far more egregiously cross similar ethical lines.
Of the show’s components, then, we’re left with one: the show’s host, or as close as it comes to a host. And Donald Trump is the show’s biggest problem.
“The Apprentice” gets its life from its star, unlike those reality series that are effectively and efficiently guided by their hosts but don’t place them at center stage (“Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “The Mole”). There is no disputing that the real star of “The Apprentice” is the famous billionaire. His silhouette forms the series’ logo; the title sequence is an homage to the life and empire he’s built. His series succeeded and became a hit because of him. Donald Trump’s personality and persona are now holding the series back, however, preventing it from evolving. His exceptional and not-quite-believable hyperbole has suffered the most; while it was once fun, it’s now beyond ridiculous.
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In season one, his overblown persona drew viewers and captivated them. He was brutally honest, a Wall Street version of Simon Cowell, and his reputation gave the show an aura of credibility. Trump was also ruthless, dismissing candidates with a terse “You’re fired” and darting his pointed fingers at the unlucky person with his now-famous, oft-imitated cobra strike move. It was fascinating television.
That was two years ago. Since then, his shtick has not changed. After a while, it’s no longer fun to watch him praise a candidate one week and then tear them down the next, as if they’ve suddenly gone from being a brilliant businessperson to a drooling fool. In the boardroom, easily the most popular part of the show, the contestants are held accountable for their actions. Or at least, that’s the idea.
Instead, Trump’s decision-making is arbitrary at best, especially since he’s typically not judging actual work product, but making decisions based upon second-hand information about petty interpersonal conflicts. The firings are generally unpredictable because candidates can get fired for talking too much, or failing to change an incompetent team into a functional one in two days, or for making a single mistake.
In the boardroom, sidekicks George and Carolyn have become more vocal, but whatever Trump does, they support him unilaterally, frustratingly refusing to challenge even his most absurd pronouncements.
Last season, producers at least considered replacing Trump with Martha Stewart, continuing the franchise with a new boss. That didn’t materialize, and Martha instead helmed her own version. The series failed, but ironically, it was a better version of Trump’s show: smoother and more controlled, and far less sensationalized. And Martha seemed much more serious about selecting someone who’d actually “fit in” with her team, as she said repeatedly.
Trump now denies that Martha replacing him was even a possibility, even though producer Mark Burnett confirms that it was discussed. Trump’s denial gets at a larger problem: his repeated disingenuousness. Do we really believe Donald Trump when he says that this is the best group of candidates ever, just as he said at the start of every other season? When he praises the companies who have paid to be included in the tasks, do we have reason to believe that he isn’t overstating the case just a little?
Moreover, that hyperbole is increasingly coming across as delusion. Trump recently told Newsweek that he has “the number one show on TV,” which of course is far from true. From the third to the fourth season alone, the average number of viewers dropped by about three million; repeats of “CSI” airing at the same time were sometimes watched by more people. “The Apprentice” does continue to draw a sizable number of viewers ages 18 to 49, and it’s the number-one show among people ages to 25 to 54 who make more than $100,000 a year. Still, “CSI” and “American Idol” are the undisputed rulers of network television ratings these days, and saying anything else just sounds like a lie.
By contrast, Jeff Probst has been brutally honest about his show, “Survivor,” sometimes criticizing it (particularly the all-star season) but mostly just discussing it critically. Whether guiding Tribal Council or giving interviews to the press, Probst holds the contestants, the show, and himself accountable. All Donald Trump knows how to do is push his next venture, the next season. He’s terrible at dealing with any sort of nuance, and that take-it-or-leave-it approach is hurting the franchise. Too often he applies extreme labels, and not everything can be “the best” or “the worst.”
As the seasons go by, the candidates’ faces change, but everything else the same, particularly Trump’s exhausting take-it-or-leave-it persona. Thus the show has become predictable and is no longer as compelling as it once was.
“The Apprentice 5” has already taped, and again returns to the boardroom and loft in New York City’s Trump Tower. Next season, however, the series is moving to Los Angeles. That geographical shift offers an excellent opportunity for “The Apprentice” to do what it really needs to do: grow. Just as “Survivor” and Jeff Probst have evolved as a show and a host, “The Apprentice” and Donald Trump needs to push themselves forward. The problem is, the show’s one-note star might not be capable of that sort of evolution.
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