The story of the first season of NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice" may be summed up by one of its two finalists: "I'm really surprised to be here." (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Thus spoke Trace Adkins, multi-platinum country singer and assumed cannon fodder. His competitors were from within the media world, more comfortable in corporate chitchat, and better known in Manhattan. They did not boast scars from tractor accidents. They were not best known for inflicting "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" upon the world.
And he has upended the nation's "Apprentice" bracket. It's likely he wouldn't have made it out of the final four were it not for Donald Trump's insistence upon framing the season finale in terms of "USA versus U.K.! Good versus Evil! Person with suspiciously European accent versus person with ponytail!"
By firing the highly cheekboned Carol Alt, who boasted a 2-0 record as project manager, and explaining, "I want to see these two guys fight," Trump has now officially established that "The Apprentice" is less about candidate proficiency than it is about good television. Say this for Trump and his gilded apartment within the skyscraper which bears his name: He wants a happy audience.
Quietly staying alive
That's not to say Adkins sailed to the finale without managing the game — and his temper — with a smart, quiet doggedness. Although he brought an 0-2 record to the final four boardroom, neither tasks were disasters. He also led his team on the first non-firing episode in "Apprentice" history, and had a one-man disadvantage for his second loss.
Non-country fans had never heard of him, and thus paid attention to more familiar names, struggling to come to terms with the fact that Nadia Comaneci is 47 years old and no longer wears her hair in little ribbons. While viewers smirked over such sights as Gene Simmons selling photo printers, Adkins was quietly staying alive.
He has perhaps benefited from low expectations and "redneck racism"; some heard two words of his slow Louisiana drawl and concluded that little lay behind it. Who was this … this oil-rig worker from flyover territory?
"If people know my story, they can listen to the songs and know that ol' Trace, he lived those songs," Adkins once told Yahoo! Music. Indeed. His temper, the country-music tabloids say, has earned him an impressive array of "Roadhouse"-grade scars. In show interviews, he's admitted to maintaining a slow burn in order to uphold his position in the game.
Doing his part
For not only have his abilities been dismissed, so has the charity for which he plays: The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, which provides education, advocacy and research support to families dealing with the daily nightmare of serious food allergies. Adkins' 6-year-old daughter, Brianna, suffers from life-threatening reactions to peanuts, milk and eggs. "It's very personal for me," he said as Quiznos employees amassed a task-related sandwich he created — and which his daughter cannot eat.
He may have to be content with that, because his patience appears to be running dangerously near empty. Forced by the final task, a charity auction, to sit across a table from the Backstreet Boys and politely listen to wheatgrass juice-related demands, he tail-ended his exasperation with a hearty (for him), "I'm glad you've found something that works for you," but later fumed to the camera that "talking to the Backstreet Boys is time out of my life I'll never get back."
For all of Trump's bluster about a U.S. versus U.K. showdown, Adkins' competition, media man-about-Britain Piers Morgan, is playing for an American military charity, the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.
Morgan shall sail well and truly into "Apprentice" lore with a highly satisfying trouncing of Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth. (She shall not appear in this space single-namedly, as her biography on the NBC Web site insists, for the supposed ability to achieve single-name status on the basis of reality-show notoriety is hereby not recognized.) "This was a catastrophe of biblical proportions," Morgan said cheerfully, creaming her in an art-sale project by a margin of 23-1, the largest defeat in the history of the series. This is not a man who seeks to avoid wrinkling his ascot in the name of victory.
It doesn't look good for Adkins, given that Morgan, in the mere act of turning on his BlackBerry, has produced the Duchess of York and Simon Cowell. Adkins has promised two chartered jets full of Nashville's finest, but then again, he could load the entirety of the Grand Ol' Opry onto a 747 and get only yawns on the streets of New York.
However, Morgan may win the task and lose the competition. At press time, Adkins maintains an edge in fan voting, and Trump seems to have high regard for the person who not only refers to himself in the third person, but also sticks an "ol'" in front of it.
And as Adkins knows, sometimes the favor of Trump is all you need.