IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Apprentice’ moves west, with same old Trump

Show has grown stale, but billionaire businessman remains unpredictable. By Andy Dehnart
/ Source: contributor

When “The Apprentice” first debuted three years ago, it was a sensation even before it began. The first season concluded with an “American Idol”-size audience of 40 million people.

College-level business courses used the series in class and the contestants appeared in the pages of celebrity magazines.

But while the series have changed very little, its ratings and buzz deflated rapidly, and it’s been in a sort of free-fall ever since. That’s both strange and entirely predictable for the same reason, as over five seasons, “The Apprentice” hasn’t evolved.

Much like its not-so-distant cousin —“The Apprentice” is essentially just an urban version of that show — Donald Trump’s series hasn’t changed its format or its core pieces over its three-year, five-season life.

Every season follows two teams of type-A businesspeople who compete in tasks designed to test their ability in marketing, sales, event planning, teamwork, and leadership, among other business-related areas. Those tasks are often designed to pitch products for the show’s sponsors, who have sometimes found great success using the reality show as an extended commercial.

The team that loses the task is then judged by Donald Trump and his executives, and blame is assigned, culminating in a dramatic and now-iconic firing. Those moments occur in the boardroom, which is “The Apprentice”’s version of “Survivor”’s Tribal Council, but which is much more dramatic, mostly because Trump acts as both judge and jury. Some weeks he loves loyalty; other weeks he can’t stand it.

He fires people for stepping up and taking a leadership role even when their team caused the problem, and he blames people for not wanting to step up into a leadership role. Trump is absolutely unpredictable, and combined with the candidates’ desperate attempts to save themselves, that dramatically lit set has provided hours of entertainment.

Don't even mention the Martha spin-offYet it was not enough to keep the country watching; the second season debuted as the lowest-rated episode of the series to date, which was surprising, considering how popular the show was just a few months before.

By its third season, which debuted only a year after the first, the show was forced to shake things up. Donald Trump split the teams based upon their level of education (“book smarts” or “street smarts”), and highlighted their differences constantly.

That apparently wasn’t dramatic enough, so producers and Trump considered for the fourth season. While such a split never occurred, executive producer Mark Burnett’s other series, “Survivor,” used that concept for “Survivor Cook Islands” a year later.

Along the way, there was the spin-off: “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart,” which adapted the format for a newly free Martha Stewart. Its boardroom was brighter and was home to fewer confrontations, or at least to a less abrasive personality, but the show didn’t become a sensation. Donald Trump did his thing and blamed Martha Stewart, calling her show a “piece of garbage” and blaming her for hurting his own version of the show.

A year later, as the debut of the sixth season approaches, Trump is again engaged in a war of words with a powerful woman; this time, he’s been with a string of insults, although he has not blamed her for the decline of his show (yet).

But calling Rosie O’Donnell “a big loser” and “my nice little fat Rosie” after she called him a “snake-oil salesman” is not Trump’s only plan for injecting life into his series.

For one, NBC delayed its start for half a year; the show was taped last summer, but is debuting a year after season five kicked off. That may help, but in case it does not, the show has also made some of its most dramatic changes yet. The series is moving across the country, to Los Angeles, abandoning its familiar, iconic New York setting and introducing several twists.

There have also been personnel changes: Last summer, (or she left, depending upon who you ask), and she will not be part of this season. Instead, Trump’s 25-year-old daughter Ivanka will return, as will her older brother, Don.

What won’t change, of course, is their father, Donald Trump. The series is his, period. If it moves to outer space for season seven — and yes, NBC has already ordered a seventh installment — that will not change. “The Apprentice” was given life because of Donald Trump, and became popular because of him. And perhaps it has also , not that he’d ever admit it.

That is one of the show’s most appealing parts, though: Whatever happens, wherever the series is set, viewers can rely on Donald Trump living up to his reputation as Donald Trump.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.