If you heard a plaintive "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" rising from the nation last night, there's a good chance it was coming from a disgusted group of "Apprentice" fans, who'd just watched the NBC reality show make what appeared to be its third major blunder in four weeks.
(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
Donald Trump fired project manager Pamela after she, as the only woman on the Mosaic team, was forced to move over to the oh-so-catty Apex team, which lost its fourth challenge in a row. Once Apex narrowly lost a QVC sales challenge, anyone who'd seen the show this season knew Pamela was doomed.
But did Pamela deserve the firing? Viewers saw an Apex team that had been snapping at each other like children in previous weeks seem to meld together, selling three times as many units of their It Works cleaning block as the the men sold of their more expensive De Longhi panini grill. The only problems seemed to be minor ones: The women's reaction to Pamela's ordering them around, Stacy's anger over being rushed in her legal duties, Maria's quiet fume when she heard herself criticized over an open microphone.
To viewers, there was no doubt that, of all the women, the one most capable of being Trump's Apprentice was Pamela. To see her fired over a $10 difference was frustrating, and to see it happen on the heels of Bradford and Stacie being fired, each for controversial reasons, was doubly frustrating. ( Jennifer C.'s firing , by contrast, was both satisfying and deserved.) Fans can put up with a great deal, but there's always going to be a point where they wonder why the should continue to make time for a show that only makes them furious.
It started in Borneo
Reality-show fans are not an especially unforgiving lot. Richard Hatch, universally hated, it seemed, won the million on the original "Survivor" season, in Borneo. But by the time he came back this spring for "Survivor All-Stars," many folks who moaned when Richard won were now rooting for him. (That is, until he pulled a crass and totally uncalled-for naked block of onetime defender Sue Hawk. After that, and Sue's subsequent breakdown, fans couldn't wait to see him voted off.)
Undeserving folks have won other shows, too. "Amazing Race" fans watched in disbelief as Flo Pesenti completely lost it during that show's third season. Only Flo's partner, the saintly and dogged Zach Behr, was able to coax her not only to stay in the competition, but somehow to cross the finish line before any of the other teams, winning $500,000 apiece.
Flo's win was hard to swallow for fans because she not only whined and cried, she gave up, throwing her bike helmet and announcing her desire to get out of the race. But if there was a good side to the tough-to-take win, it was that tolerant Zach, who'd shown the patience of Job, was also receiving a big check.
Would the first season of "The Apprentice" have been as well-regarded as it was if somehow Omarosa, the diva viewers loved to hate, had won it all? Instead, the show's last two finalists, Kwame and Bill, were two of the most respected and well-liked players on the entire show. Many fans felt, going into the final competition, that no matter who won, they would be happy with the result.
Can't get no satisfaction
That's part of the frustration about reality shows: Sure, scripted programs sometimes take turns that fans wouldn't have wanted. Beloved characters, such as Adriana on "The Sopranos," are killed off, or fan-favored couples are broken up.
But there's something more galling, somehow, about devoting a season of weeknights to a reality show and then watching someone you've grown to dislike walk away with a check larger than the cost of your house. (Maybe larger than your house, your neighbor's house, your car, your neighbor's car...)
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All of us have had plenty of real-life experiences where we've watched an undeserving jerk walk away with something good. The promotion we applied for went to that sniveling co-worker, or the boyfriend or girlfriend we coveted married someone we can't stand. That's real life, and although we may not like it, we have to live with it. It doesn't mean we want to see it happen on what's supposed to be entertainment.
That said, there's a difference between wanting a certain person to win because that person seems deserving, and being frustrated because a game does not seem to be run fairly. It's tough to watch a deserving candidate ousted, but it's often understandable.
Rupert Boneham, perhaps the most popular "Survivor" contestant ever, was voted out of both his original Pearl Islands and the "All-Stars" season that followed. But in an odd twist that felt unfair to many, Rupert was awarded a million dollars anyway, in CBS's extra Viewers' Choice competition. Many who'd wanted him to win one of his other seasons were delighted that he was selected, but still many others saw the whole idea of a Viewers' Choice as unfair. Rupert may have been popular, it may have been satisfying for many to see him pick up a big check, but he didn't win fairly.
On "The Amazing Race 3," well-liked dating couple Jill and John Vito bit the dust after a down-to-the-wire race with older marrieds Ian and Teri. Jill and John Vito seemingly had done everything right: They were tough, athletic competitors. They supported each other and played fair. Their backstory put a lump in your throat: Jill had originally applied to the show with her brother, who was later killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But "The Amazing Race" is a show that is hard to cheat: You either make it to the pit stop before the others, or you don't. Jill and John Vito didn't, and they bowed out gracefully.
It's not so clear-cut when the show involves subjective eliminations. Often the most deserving player, the one viewers want to win, is clearly seen as a threat and voted out, especially on shows like "Survivor" where the other contestants do the voting. And that's part of the game. Other players would have to be idiots not to see that the popularity of someone like Rupert would hurt them down the line.
It’s all about Trump
It's a different story on "The Apprentice." For one thing, the elimination decision rests, in the end, with Donald Trump alone. Sure, he can't decide which team loses the week's challenge, or who the project manager is, and who that manager chooses to bring into the boardroom.
But this week, he chose Pamela, seemingly only because of her gender, and sent her off to a team that had proven its pettiness again and again. Sure, Pamela had a shot. If Apex had earned 11 more dollars, she would have been safe not only this week but next week (unless she pulled a Bradford and stupidly gave up immunity).
But what galls many "Apprentice" viewers about the Pamela, Bradford and Stacie eliminations is that Trump doesn't seem to be playing fair. According to his own rules, he's supposedly weeding out people in order to choose the one who would be the best Apprentice. Yet week after week, whining babies like Maria, Stacy and Ivana are kept on, while those who exhibit actual business skills are shown the door.
It's a game. And it's Trump's game, and his right to fire whoever he wants, for whatever reason he wants. If he's making his unusual decisions because he thinks it will bring the show drama or better ratings, that's his call. And if he were to turn around next week and announce that he's firing Ivana simply because she has the same name as his ex-wife, well, technically that would probably be within his rights as "Apprentice" Grand Poohbah.
But for all the decisions Trump gets to make, viewers every week make an even more important one. They choose whether to continue to invest themselves in a show that seems more and more random and unfair.
After all, they can always push one button on the remote and switch from "The Apprentice" over to "CSI" on CBS. On "CSI," at least, the good guys almost always win, and more importantly, the rules of forensics remain consistent and fair.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor
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