It's easy to think that "The Apprentice" is won and lost by how contestants perform out in the streets of New York, as they tackle the various and often bizarre tasks to which Donald Trump sets them. And certainly that's a part of it. If a contestant excels in every challenge, pushing his or her team to win after win, there's a much better chance of staying afloat.
But sooner or later, even the best team loses. They're given a task that doesn't fit them (the men designing a women's clothing line), or they come freakishly close but still lose ( Pamela being fired because Mosaic made $11 more than Apex on the QVC task.) And once your team loses, the game's rules change, and you're going to have to do time in the Boardroom.
Like Survivor's Tribal Council , the Boardroom is a place no one wants to be. Trump doesn't like losers, and no matter how close the competition was, the team showing up in the Boardroom has just lost.
In recent episodes, the "Apprentice" contestants have finally begun to plan for their Boardroom appearances. Why they took so long to start doing this is a mystery along the lines of why do so few "Survivor" contestants practice rubbing sticks together to make fire before they're shipped to the island. You know it's coming, you know it's going to be tough, why wouldn't you give it some thought in advance?
No one learns from Boardrooms past
Each Boardroom firing comes complete with a lesson for those who will end up squirming their way through future Boardrooms, but in most cases, the contestants are just too dim to learn it. A super-smart contestant would do well to covertly quiz the opposite team about how their Boardroom experience went, most notably: What did Trump give as his reason for firing the latest victim?
When John was fired, Trump repeated over and over that he had simply made too many mistakes. For Pamela, he said she'd wrongly assessed the abilities of her team. With Jennifer C., Trump flat-out told her that her entire team hated her. And early in the season, when Rob was the first one fired, he was told he didn't contribute, instead waiting around to be asked.
Stacy committed most, if not all, of those mistakes. Her constant talking annoyed everyone around her, her nitpicky work covering labels for the QVC challenge drove Pamela crazy. She had a snitty fight with Jennifer C during the restaurant challenge ("This one won't listen," snotted Jennifer. "She has not earned my respect," Stacy snapped back.)
Carolyn, Trump's eyes out in the field, witnessed Stacy standing around while others on Mosaic got down and dirty washing New York City's dogs. She saw Stacy propose a dog-costume idea, then refuse to admit the concept was too expensive for the team's purposes. And surely she reported all of that back to Trump.
But in the end, Trump told Stacy she was being fired for always complaining, always blaming others, and never taking responsibility. Those are all things that Trump himself saw her do, week after week, in the Boardroom.
You could witness the difference this week, when Wes and Andy sat next to Stacy in the Boardroom. Trump chastised Andy for losing a team cell phone, and the young Harvard grad dropped his eyes and nodded. The Donald told project manager Wes he was a lousy leader, and the only part of Wes that moved was his eyebrows, slightly. But when Trump spoke to Stacy, she interrupted, she defended herself, she talked over Carolyn. It was her Boardroom behavior that showed the obvious: Stacy is not ready to be anyone's Apprentice, and even for a traffic ticket, you wouldn't want her to be your lawyer.
Ultimate job interview
In a sense, all of "The Apprentice" is a job interview. But the Boardroom is where the contestants are expected to pull out their best job-interview behavior.
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Witness Jennifer M. after being told that Apex, the team she led, had just whomped Mosaic. Instead of whooping and pumping her fists, she kept her hands folded, and only the slightest smile crept onto her face. Jennifer, an Ivy League-educated securities litigator, may have learned a great deal at Haaaaahvaaaahd, and perhaps she learned a little from Bradford : When you're ahead, hold your tongue. Plenty of other contestants are tripping over their feet to hang themselves, no need to join them.
Instead of treating the Boardroom time as a job interview and trying to be on her best behavior, Stacy treated it as if she was auditioning for a role in "Mean Girls." Sure, it's incredibly tough to sit there while you're being attacked, but a cruel edge crept into Stacy's voice in the Boardroom, an edge that just wasn't a part of her teammates' speech. Trump missed it for weeks, concentrating instead on punishing Bradford for giving up his exemption , or Stacie J. for playing with a Magic 8-Ball .
But it seemed obvious that Carolyn didn't miss it. Perhaps as a woman herself, she remembered those long-ago junior-high battles, and recognized the snotty whine of the meanest of mean girls. Perhaps as a businesswoman who's obviously put in some long hours in her day, she was just frustrated at Stacy's laziness. But she wasn't fooled, that much was clear.
Only after Stacy was fired did she take on a proper Boardroom attitude, deferential and a little contrite.
"Stacy, you're fired," said Trump.
"I'm sorry to hear that," she said, getting up and leaving the room without another word.
Finally, an appropriate Boardroom reaction. But for Stacy, it was too little, too late.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor
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