A Fox reality show that looks suspiciously like something you've already seen or heard about is nothing new. From "Trading Spouses" to "The Next Great Champ," Fox has developed a reputation for persistence and shamelessness in rolling out its own versions of shows that have worked well or are in development for other networks.
So it isn't surprising to see Fox stepping forward with "The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest For The Best," its approximation of "The Apprentice" — or as close as it can get without the whole mess ending in litigation as it sometimes has before. Where NBC offers Donald Trump giving away a job for $250,000, Fox offers self-consciously tousled British adventurer Richard Branson, the king of the Virgin empire (which sounds like something Trump would call himself, actually), giving away a million dollars and, he claims, the top job in his company.
Yes, that's right. In theory, the winner of this show is going to be president of the Virgin Group. Of course, in all likelihood, this will not be a position of great authority, in whatever form it may ultimately take. The winner will likely be seen surfing and sitting behind a big desk, much as "Apprentice" winner Bill Rancic is often seen squinting at buildings from under a hard hat, but it still fits nicely into the theme that "The Rebel Billionaire" is "The Apprentice" on steroids. It mimics the insanely rich central figure, the young, entrepreneurial contestants, the series of tasks, the eliminations, and the fat prize waiting for the winner.
But given how large Donald Trump looms on the show he and Mark Burnett have so successfully pumped up to iconic status, is there any "Apprentice" without him? Certainly, Branson can go hair-to-hair with Trump when it comes to having a larger-than-life persona. Just as Trump has his gleaming, gloriously tacky apartment and his germ phobias and his apparent need to trade in his wives periodically the way some people upgrade their cell phones, Branson has his rough-and-tumble image and that weird preoccupation with circumnavigating the globe in a hot-air balloon.
Trying to trump Trump
Branson probably even trumps Trump as a voracious acquirer of enterprises — as Trump loves his modeling agency and his pageants and his bottled water, Branson loves his airlines and his record company and his cell phone provider and his book publishing and his . . . well, honestly, if you use it, watch it, listen to it, or read it, Richard Branson is probably in the business of it. In fact, he recently set himself up to sell commercial space travel, which might give you an idea of just how badly he wants not to be left out of whatever the next wave of consumerism may be. Either that, or he just thinks space travel is cool, and when you're a billionaire, you can afford to blow a few bucks that way.
A slick, modern image may actually become a handicap for Branson, though, when it comes to the show. One of the charms of Trump the TV star, quite honestly, is his stubbornly and hopelessly dorky demeanor. Sure, he hosted Jessica Simpson last year, but there may not be a less hip man in the entire country, and that includes members of the clergy and guys who teach driver's ed. This is part of the charm of "The Apprentice" — seeing these young guns in their Hugo Boss and their Prada sucking up to, of all people, Donald Trump. Donald Trump is less cool than your grandmother. And until last year, he was less relevant than the Macarena. Very few of us, after all, have a Donald Trump product in our living rooms.
By contrast, Branson already owns one of the most influential brands in the world. He does not go under, does not require zillion-dollar bailouts, and is not forever in the paper for having to sell off various parts of his empire to pay for dental floss. He's going to be skydiving with the contestants on this show. He's going to be hanging out with them, all friendly and regular-guy. It's entirely possible that the schadenfreude factor that "The Apprentice" has drawn upon by dragging a bunch of smarty-pants MBAs in to humble themselves before the gloriously silly Trump is just not going to be available in a setting where the guy they're trying to impress isn't quite so . . . strange.
And it's not only Trump's oversized personality that has influenced the nature of the show; it's his decision-making, as well. One of the things that won't be clear until "The Rebel Billionaire" cranks through a few episodes, of course, is how Branson will go about eliminating contestants. (Rather than firing them, he will reportedly "leave someone on the tarmac" when his plane takes off with the rest of the candidates, making Trump's little hand gesture now only the second most frightening way to be eliminated, just behind being sucked into a jet engine.)
Trump is an oddball all his own
"The Apprentice," after all, has walked a tremendously fine line the rationality of its eliminations. There are weeks when Trump makes exactly the decision the audience at home would make. He rears back and fires the bumbling incompetent , or the ineffectual leader, or the person who makes one critical error that costs the team the entire task.
Other times, though, he fires someone for what appear to be mysterious reasons — one mistake when others were far worse, or bad reviews from a clearly sabotage-oriented team, or some particular quirky bit of behavior that he just doesn't take to. Trump's capriciousness has, particularly in the second season, been dissatisfying for viewers who feel like they can't understand what he's thinking. On the other hand, this season of "Survivor" has shown what a reality show looks like when the decision-makers act methodically , and it's not pretty. It's boring.
So Branson will have to avoid the dual traps of being too predictable and rational in his decisions on one hand and being too inscrutable on the other. Trump seemed to have a better feel for this balance in the first season than he has now, but he is still the inventor of the cold and abrupt firing, and Fox will have to hope that it can achieve the same effect without the inimitable Trump style.
Can there be an "Apprentice" without Trump? Almost certainly. There are acres of room for improvement in style and TV-friendliness -- Trump's inability to speak on cue without sounding like an automaton comes through loud and clear every time they ask him to narrate anything, and especially when a looped voiceover has to be inserted into a Boardroom sequence. Furthermore, a less petty and more unqualifiedly successful leader might have an entirely separate set of charms. But Trump is a unique brand of oddball, and Branson and Fox will have to put up more than money and skydiving if they're going to match the bizarre spectacle he creates.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.
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