Oh, Martha, what happened?
So many people had high hopes for your “Apprentice.” You've created compelling TV with your "Living" shows, and proven that you have a loyal viewer base. Though the “Apprentice” formula at times seems as worn as Limoges china after one too many trips through the dishwasher, it's always kept people tuned in — and it was a safe bet you would take Mark Burnett and Donald Trump's concept and make it your own.
Instead, you've been squeezed into a Burnettian box, and it just doesn't work.
What's so puzzling is that Burnett is still turning out solid reality fare: "Survivor" is still going strong, with only cosmetic changes, and "The Contender" will have a new life on ESPN. Only The Donald's "Apprentice" seems to be stuck in a rut — though it hasn't diminished any of the Trumpesque hype for season five.
Yet the vibe of Martha's "Apprentice" just deflates like a bad soufflé. Its pacing is jumpy and uneven, and it falls prey to the same faux-dramatic pretensions that Burnett too often employs: lurid music, minor squabbles blown out of proportion (Dawn vs. Jim, Dawn vs. Bethenny, Dawn vs. everyone) and dark lighting schemes for the interior sets that are very not-Martha. You can't see pastels when you're being shouted at in the dark.
Worse still is Martha's non-presence on the show. She got more screen time this week, thanks to her surprise visit to the candidates' loft and an appearance at the charity dog auction. But she's also been candid about her time in prison, perhaps too much so. When asking about communal loft living, she compared it to "being at you know where."
If her TV blitz is meant for image rehab, it sends the wrong message to broadcast a Martha-centric show that struggles to give her screen time. Even a casual Martha follower can attribute her absence more to her commitments to the federal government than a need to groom horses at her Bedford manse. (Trump's "Apprentice" also has weakened as he's pared back his own presence — Carolyn is set to take the boardroom chair this week, though Trump will show up nonetheless.)
Martha has shown more business savvy than Trump at times: She called Shawn back to be fired after a dreadful wedding-cake sales effort, while Trump allowed do-nothing Toral to survive an extra week for no good reason. And this week, she insisted Jim prove himself as project manager and hand-picked David and Marcela to return to the conference room, ensuring that one of them would be sent packing for their meager effort.
Still, those moments are rare, and while Stewart's farewell letters are quintessential Martha, they seem a pale substitute for Trump's galvanizing "You're fired!"
Nor have Martha's sidekicks contributed much. Charles Koppelman, obviously a powerful guy, has mostly devoted his screen time to cigar fondling and revealing a secret desire to do stand-up — and racks up a tidy reported $3 million for his pains. Even when she asked for his help this week, he merely replied, "Always prepared to give you advice if you want it."
And Stewart's daughter Alexis has the screen presence of a mime.
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'A different viewer'?
The real problem can be seen in the numbers. By last week, the show was limping along with a 2.6 rating in the key 18-49 demographic, and a total viewership of 6.8 million — well below its premiere numbers of 7.7 million.
Nor did it help to move Martha directly up against ABC's "Lost" at 9 p.m. ET — not only a perennial winner in the ratings, but one with a significant female viewership.
Burnett complained to the Washington Post about the time shift from 8 p.m., though he tried to save face by saying that "maybe at 9 o'clock we'll find a different viewer." Yet since the move, "Lost" has averaged a 24 share among women 18-49, about three times what Martha draws.
Martha's appeal has largely been to women, and hers is a daytime aesthetic. She's about picture-perfect pies and frustratingly elaborate Christmas decorations, which simply isn't primetime fare. (Witness CBS' underappreciated "Wickedly Perfect." )
While Trump seems to pull off his endless self-promoting puffery, Martha trying to tout her empire's many tentacles mostly sounds like an infomercial. She does better to let her brand speak for itself.
Ironically, Martha's "Apprentice" works best when it dives into territory familiar to Stewart. Last week's salad-dressing episode somehow worked by putting the cooks (Marcela and Bethenny) in the kitchen. Not as on-message as Martha whipping up vinaigrette on her daytime show, but close.
We've been forced to try and digest two Marthas: the Martha of "Entertaining" who can roast a goose while tatting new doilies, and the tough-as-nails CEO Martha who makes subordinates tremble in the hallways.
Only the first Martha really works on TV, much as we might want to see her nails come out. (Fat chance.) By contrast, Trump's "Apprentice" worked for a while because it matched The Donald's persona — pumped-up, blustery and supremely confident of its own virtues.
Instead of classic Martha, viewers have been fed an Omarosa redux (Jim); a bunch of lackluster tasks (the wedding-cake challenge); and the same New York video-postcard filler that often makes the original "Apprentice" feel like two minutes of real TV and 40 minutes of filler.
Need another hint that Martha's falling into the Burnett trap? Next week's promo shows the candidates in superhero outfits.
And so comes the finger-pointing. Burnett has already began his own damage control, telling the Los Angeles Times that Pentagon drama "E-Ring" was a poor lead-in and suggesting that Martha's performance was the result of overexposure and hype for the show before it ever aired. (His significant role in that exposure wasn't mentioned.)
Omnimedia CEO Susan Lyne put a brave face on Martha's "Apprentice," portraying it as icing on top of Stewart's daytime show (another Burnett production) and talking about the virtues of 6 or 7 million viewers "watching an hour of television that features your company and your brands."
We expect to bid Martha's prime-time effort a stoic farewell by early winter. NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly told the Post: "We've only contemplated one edition of the show."
It's convenient to blame bad scheduling, or Martha's tarnished post-prison image, but ultimately the fault lies with a TV show that sent the wrong message about a person who usually has an uncanny knack for understanding her fans want. The "confusion" between the two shows, as The Donald put it, was nothing more than trying to squeeze Stewart into a Trump mold. Burnett can't be blameless for that, and it was a surprising move for someone who's obsessed with remaining atop the reality-TV heap.
MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné makes a mean vinaigrette — though Marcela's rosemary-lime dressing looked pretty tasty.
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints