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Can ‘Apprentice 3’ rescue the concept?

Show needs better tasks, smart casting, less Carolyn. By Sarah D. Bunting
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Another season of "The Apprentice" begins Thursday — just a month and four days after the last finale. While some viewers are looking forward to another season of , , Anna Kournikova-ogling boardrooms, others feel like it's too soon.

Despite what series star Donald Trump might try to tell you about the ratings for Season Two, the show didn't do nearly as well in its second season as it did in its first, for a number of reasons — first among them the casting.  Part of the attraction of reality TV is its frequent resemblance to a human train wreck, it's true, but in order to make said wreckage compelling, a reality show needs to give audiences someone to root for. 

The first season's merry band of Boardroomians had its share of the obnoxious (Heidi), the tactlessly inept (Jessie), and the downright certifiable (Omarosa).  But it also had Troy — forthright, innovative, folksy, and almost universally beloved — and a final two, Bill and Kwame, who knew how to get things done and behave professionally at the same time.  Viewers who rooted for one of them could still get behind a victory for the other.

By contrast, the second season's final two came down to a choice between the lesser of two evils: smug micromanager Kelly, or manipulative idler Jennifer M.  The contestants fired before them didn't exactly cover themselves with glory either, between orchestrating the catty and groundless firing of Stacie J. (all the women except Jen M.), dissolving into tears over perceived slights (Elizabeth and Maria), and not knowing how to pronounce Carolyn's name (Bradford).  Oh, and (oh, Ivana).

"The Apprentice" did well in its first season because it at least faintly resembled a real job interview; the performance of the competitors on tasks and in the boardroom had some relevance to who did or didn't get fired, and we viewers loved armchair-quarterbacking the process from the perspective of our own work experiences. 

But in the second season, both the tasks themselves and Trump's personnel decisions seemed to have little to do with actually selecting a competent executive.  How else to explain why he fired Pamela, who inherited a crappy team and led it impressively, instead of Maria, who had screwed up demonstrably on two tasks in a row — or the corrosively unlikable Stacy.  If it's because Trump thought viewers "loved to hate" Stacy, he needed to think again.  We just hated her, and a lot of us lost respect for the show after Pamela got the gate unfairly.

Beating the slumpThe show lost its way last season, but Trump and series creator Mark Burnett can stop the ratings slide if they get back to what made the show so watchable in the beginning.  Casting contestants who don't treat competition like an on-air slambook would be a start; choosing tasks that showcase relevant skills, instead of product placements, would help too. 

If the eventual Apprentice won't be selling Trump & Jerry's ice cream on the street, don't waste the teams' (or viewers') time on Times Square gelato carts anymore — come up with missions that test business and leadership skills, not street sales or arts and crafts.  And fire people based on those skills, on performance, not on whether their teammates think they're a little weird.

Also: Less Carolyn.  Her snottily expressed disdain for certain contestants, while usually deserved, gets too much screen time. For a woman who runs a golf course, she wields too much influence here; a little superior eyebrow-arching goes a long way.

It's easy to backseat-produce what needs fixing about a show, but it's even easier to add a gimmick instead of making the necessary repairs. That's what Trump and Burnett have done for the third season, dividing the teams into book smarts versus street smarts.  Presumably, the Book Smarts team sports an impressive array of law and business degrees from various Ivy-caliber institutions, while the Street Smarts team has garnered their degrees from the school of hard knocks.

Can such a device revive the "Apprentice" franchise?  Possibly.  Again, a lot depends on the casting — specifically, including fewer of the emotional midgets that plagued last season — but splitting the teams into "ivory tower" and "boot straps" might make it relevant again. 

Does no degree mean you're fired?These questions have come up repeatedly on the show: Which serves people better in the business world, education or experience?  What's the correct balance?  How much should a Harvard MBA "count"?  Trump thinks it counts for a lot; he's always favored Apprentices with name-brand diplomas, at times to the point of fetishizing them.  Andy had his moments, but the crust of graduation had barely cooled on him, and it showed; still, Trump's fascination with Andy's Harvard degree (and national debate title) kept him in the running longer than he'd have lasted otherwise. 

Conversely, Troy and bridal-salon owner Sandy didn't finish college, and when they got near the end, Trump sent them packing.  He and his advisers found ways to call it something else — lack of polish in Troy's case, not enough corporate experience in Sandy's — but really, it's because The Donald is like a large, poorly coifed crow, attracted to the biggest, best, and most expensive shiny objects.  A Yale Law transcript is such an object; small-business success isn't.

Trump's preference in that area has probably prevented several of the worthier candidates from advancing, but that's what might make the third season of "The Apprentice" the most interesting one yet.  (Not least because it doesn't split the competitors along gender lines, an awful second-season idea that brought out a lot of Trump's sexism and made women in business look like overly made-up hair-trigger harpies .) 

Viewers often root for the plain-spoken, results-oriented "street smarts" type of contestant; Troy and Sandy both became audience favorites.  But Trump is biased towards book-larnin'.  So what happens if street smarts consistently beats book smarts?

Because it's not just a question that comes up on the show; it's a question that comes up in real life, too, all the time.  It's a question job applicants have to prepare an answer for: why they should be hired instead a more qualified, or more educated, candidate. 

Constructing the teams this way brings the hiring/firing process of the show back to something viewers can relate to, and how Trump reacts to the result is going to govern the show's fate. 

If street smarts mops the floor with book smarts, but Trump still finds an excuse to favor the Ivy Leaguers, any credibility "The Apprentice" still had will be destroyed.

If he pays attention to actual accomplishments, and favors contestants based on ability and performance instead of interpersonal melodrama, he can once again call his show the best program on TV.

But only if the is a manageable length next time.  Dear Donald: One hour, no Regis, or you're fired.

Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator and co-editor-in-chief of . She lives in Brooklyn.