The biggest lie told by “The Apprentice” comes during the opening credits. As the theme song, The O'Jay's “For the Love of Money,” wraps up, six words appear:
“It's nothing personal. It's just business.”
The cheering, jubilant crowd that awaited Donald Trump as he climbed out of his cab at Trump Tower at the beginning of the episode may have been completely set up and faked. The footage of fired candidates climbing into cabs might be staged, filmed well before any of them are actually dismissed, resulting in cab numbers that change with every shot. Donald Trump may regularly make exaggerated, ridiculously superlative claims about his businesses, such as when he called Trump Ice water “the purest, best-tasting water you can imagine.” And when a candidate asked Trump about a discredited urban legend (), Trump may or may not have been honest when he said it was “true.”
But those fibs pale into comparison from the statement that “The Apprentice” isn't “personal.” The series is nothing but personal.
Business schools and classes may use the series to analyze business acumen, and when the challenges aren't focused on selling a sponsor's product, they certainly require the application of certain knowledge and skills. Yet the season premiere of “The Apprentice 3” showed the series to be focused almost entirely on the personalities.
Let the backstabbing beginAs the episode began, before the candidates even met one another, the game was on. One of the first things we heard from a candidate was this: “I'm not one to pre-judge, but there a few people that look like they might not be Mr. Trump material,” sales executive Tana said, apparently missing the irony. Tech firm owner John then made a crack about another candidate's polyester suit.
Prosecutor Bren began prosecuting his colleagues immediately. “These people are in for a hell of a time, courtesy of me...They’re going to think I'm an idiot, and that's totally to my advantage.”
The first time viewers heard his voice, real estate developer Michael told us what he really thinks of some of his competition, saying, “You can tell a couple of the women are a little bit pampered. ‘My daddy helped me out doing this, my daddy helped me doing that.’ I can just tell that if, you know, their nail chips, they're going to get a little bit tweaked out.” Just wait until he meets Erin, who's introduced when she says, “I would like to make male chauvinist pigs realize they're that wrong, and that women can be sexy and powerful and smart.”
All this came out in the episode's early moments, before the 18 candidates had even walked into the boardroom to meet the man they'll reverently call “Mr. Trump,” before they'd even interacted with one another. Later in the episode, attorney Alex confessed that his teammates' efforts look as though “a bunch of drunk hippies threw some stuff together to make a little raft to float on." He also commented that teammate “Danny is a steamroller with a drunk driver at the helm.”
“It's nothing personal”? These comments, the fights and the backstabbing: they're what get attention from the show's editors, and they're what draw us in. Even more than the previous two seasons, “The Apprentice 3” is focused almost exclusively on communication, conflict and interaction. Business is just a background, another generic “Survivor” island that is full of interpersonal tinder ready to erupt in flame when sparks get near it.
Of course, these are constructed personalities, pieced together by the editors. The sentences uttered by the candidates as their first words on the series may have been spoken weeks into the competition, well after they'd gotten to know their teammates.
But mixing up the ingredients doesn't change the product, and the end result, regardless of its connection to what actually occurred during the production, is a series that's about people.
Again, “The Apprentice” is not about business, it's about people who happen to be working in a quasi-corporate environment. The operatic music that introduces the boardroom sequences prepares us for the denouement, the high drama. The tasks are merely side streets along the way to the face-offs that occur at the end of each episode.
Real job interview or soap opera?
Donald Trump clearly recognizes that his show is first about its candidates. After the people, “The Apprentice” is about marketing himself, then about product placement and ratings, and finally, if there's any time left, about business. If Trump didn't think so, he wouldn't have spent the better part of the first episode trying to pick fights and create petty conflicts between the candidates. From the moment when he assigned the first task on the roof of Trump Tower, he began baiting both the “street smarts” and “book smarts” teams, trying to make the high school grads feel inferior while assuring that the college graduates felt immense pressure to perform well.
Early critics of reality television flipped out that MTV called their groundbreaking real-life soap opera “The Real World,” lamely commenting that there was nothing real about 20-somethings living rent free. They ignored that the true reality came from the cast and their reactions, which were the actual focus of the series. “Apprentice” and “Survivor” creator and producer Mark Burnett recognizes that reality television is about viewers both identifying with and rejecting the people he's cast, and week after week, he's going to give us the “personal.” Forget “business.”
Midway through “The Apprentice 3's” premier, Net Worth team members Tana and Kristen went to pick up airline tickets from a travel agency. Instead of a storefront, they ended up at an apartment door, realizing that they'd been dealing with a man who works from home. Inside, their unshaven contact greeted them in shorts and a polo shirt as his hyperactive dogs jumped around excitedly. He gave them a receipt that looked more bogus than one that had been written in crayon.
And then one of his dogs relieved itself on Tana's foot. As she helpfully explained, “He went pee-pee on Tana.”
Thankfully, “The Apprentice” is everything personal and only tangentially business. Otherwise, we'd never see perfect, dramatic, unscripted moments like that.
is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.