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Martha goes with the pros on her ‘Apprentice’

From the very start, Martha Stewart set out a clear dividing line for her version of "Apprentice." 

On the one side was Matchstick, a team of "creative" types; on the other was the jarringly named Primarius, packed with "business" sorts. Matchstick was a bundle of bickering, nervous-energy misfits who rarely seemed to get their act together long enough to complete a task.

Primarius was the buttoned-down alternative — always managing to get the job done. Not in an interesting way, granted, but when you're up against the hapless Matchstickers, victory is a bunch of low-hanging grapes. Remember when Amanda's so-so hotel suite design won because Matchstick's furniture never showed up?

Such was the theme Martha quickly established in her "Apprentice," and rarely wavered: Creative may be useful, but unless you have the professional types there to keep disaster at bay, you'll never accomplish a thing.

She stayed true to form Wednesday night when she picked magazine publisher Dawna Stone over natural foods chef Bethenny Frankel to be her first — and only — Apprentice.

"I think it's all going to boil down to who you think, Martha, is going to fit in," said adviser Charles Koppelman at the very start of the show, the first of many nods to Martha's on-again, off-again catchphrase.  That theme stuck throughout, as Martha kept making Bethenny defend her creative impulses and lack of business acumen. (But never her former relationship with Charles' son, an issue that vanished quickly after the first episode.)

Bethenny was nothing if not zealous about her desire to win — and her passion for the task. "I'm the only person that really understands and connects with the brand," she said before her final trip to the conference room.

She was so convinced that she was channeling Brand Martha (right down to her Clintonesque aside, "There's no way Martha's giving it to that girl, Dawna") that she overlooked her fatal flaw: What Martha wanted was executive material, not an artiste, and despite Martha expressing concern about Bethenny's shortcomings in that department, Bethenny thought the best approach was to attack Dawna for not creating a little Martha shrine on her mantel.

Dawna wasn't so eloquent (or at least so talkative) but her message was clear. In a polished way, she kept referring to her business skills and publishing experience — all things Martha wanted to hear.

"I am calm, I am professional," Dawna said. "Bethenny sometimes rubs people the wrong way."

Indeed, and in the end, Bethenny was stuck defending those personality flaws. Her approach was to position herself as the girl from the streets, a bit quirky but willing to grow and mature on the job: "I'm manic and I can be a little chaotic, but I have always been a fighter."

Feisty doesn't cut it in Martha's world, and there was that bit of delicious irony in assigning Bethenny the final task of coordinating a charity circus.

No major gaffesActually, neither candidate really stood out in the final tasks. Dawna's charity fashion show for Liz Claiborne almost fell apart when Dawna inexplicably left Amanda in charge of the runway show.  Not only did Amanda manage to irk the Claiborne executives — misidentifying clothes, even mispronouncing the designer's name — but she ran down to the wire with endless changes, to the point that the show's glossy brochure was reduced to a dull coverless handout when Primarius ran out of time.

About the time that one exec chewed out Amanda for her ensemble descriptions ("This isn't a sweater, it's a cardigan ... there's a real difference") you started to wonder whether underneath Dawna's professional façade lay an all-thumbs delegator who couldn't match people to their tasks.

Yet Dawna somehow leveraged all her endless checklists and game plans, and efforted a similarly flawless show.

Not that Bethenny had it any easier. Her charity show featuring the Big Apple Circus started off as a mess, as she tinkered with the layout of Pringles and juice bottles while ignoring the increasingly agitated circus performers. (Management tip: Never aggravate people who throw other people for a living.) Yet she smoothed over the differences, somehow managed to duck ever-vengeful Carrie — whose desire for a showdown with Bethenny never materialized, at least on screen — and presented a flawless show to Martha, Charles and Alexis. "Good job," Charles was forced to acknowledge.

It's hardly a surprise that Martha would pick polished over quirky.  Each season of his own "Apprentice," Donald Trump quickly weeded out creative types (witness the mess that was jingle-boy Danny) and focused on accomplished and professional, if sometimes pretty dull, contestants.

Innovation is fine, but Trump has been pretty clear that he's not in the market for an creative machine; he wants someone who'll fit with minimal fuss into middle management. A Company Woman, not an Idea Man.

So why would it be any different with Martha?  She's always been clear that she is the brand and the source of inspiration, even if it takes an army of underlings to make that so.  Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia has never been about cutting edge, it's been about bottom line. Dawna was unquestionably the one to fit into that mold.

All of which begs the question: Are there any more lessons to be derived from either "Apprentice"? The little details and the scenery occasionally change (Trump is heading to the West Coast next season, which if nothing else will force Mark Burnett to cut some new filler video and maybe spruce up the soundtrack with a Beach Boys vibe) but the message has always been unwavering: Bland, upbeat professionalism is the path to success at least in Martha's and Donald's worlds. The weekly tasks change enough to sustain mild interest, but the whole "Apprentice" format has become a brand parade with the same inevitable outcome.

Quibble with that if you like, but what's apparent is that it's not going to change. Trump isn't set to hire avant-garde architects into his ranks, and Martha won't be shopping around for any poets ... or even any off-their-meds ad execs. (Sorry, Jim.) The few creative types that survive the screening process for either show primarily seem to be there for comic effect.

Life inside the boxOn the other hand, "The Apprentice" has always been among the more serious-minded of TV's reality offerings, and it comes with a basically decent message. There's no bull testicles to be eaten (though if ratings slip, never say never); no critter-infested islands to survive; no sociopath-filled houses to reside in.  They're likely the only reality shows ever to be broadcast on CNBC.

Moreover, the shows give a comparatively even-keeled view of life inside the modern workplace — proof that "leveraging assets" and "thinking outside the box" aren't just beaten-to-death business-school abstractions, they're alive and thriving in the hallways of corporate America.

But after experimenting with the "Apprentice" concept, using Martha Stewart as fodder, Mark Burnett has his work cut out for him if he wants to keep the show fresh. The Martha version was a long trip through the doldrums, and I don't think there were too many tears shed when news came that her "Apprentice" was .

Notably, she filmed the live finale in the studios of her daytime show, a reminder that even she has already moved on to her next big project, hoping to put this whole circus behind her.

In a last live moment of Martha's finale, everyone got a glass of Champagne and the camera caught Charles relievedly slugging it back. After a herky-jerky season like that, maybe we all could use a drink — and we can raise a glass to things getting better when The Donald heads to L.A.

MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné auto-deletes any e-mail message that contains the phrase "core competencies."

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