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Desperation starting to show on ‘Apprentice’

The Streets Smarts vs. Book Smarts concept just doesn't work. By Tara Ariano
/ Source: contributor

NBC knows it’s losing you. NBC knows that you care a lot less about “The Apprentice” – still the only successful multi-episode reality show it’s ever launched — than you did in its tremendous first season. NBC knows that “The Apprentice” isn’t going to be the bulletproof ratings champion that “Survivor” has been for CBS. And NBC is getting desperate.

At least, that’s one theory to explain why, in its current third season, the show has turned into a battle of Book Smarts vs. Street Smarts. In case you care so little about the show that you haven’t heard, here’s the deal: One team (who’ve named themselves “Magna,” for “magna cum laude”) consists of contestants who hold advanced degrees. The other (“Net Worth,” based on host/Guildmaster Donald Trump’s announcement in the season premiere that their personal wealth is three times their opponents’) consists of contestants who hold only high-school diplomas.

For the series to create teams that, at least initially, are made up of people on opposite sides of an arbitrary dividing line is not new; the first two seasons of the show split the teams men vs. women. (It’s easy to imagine that, when the teams inevitably get shuffled at some point this season, it will be according to sex, although two women will have to get fired first in order for the teams to be balanced.) As on “The Apprentice’s” aforementioned predecessor, “Survivor,” the “battle of the sexes” matchup created instant drama: the women felt they had to prove that they were worthy competitors regardless of their lack of gonads, and the men were motivated by a wish to avoid the shame of getting beaten by “girls.”

But the battle of the sexes format did both genders a disservice by forcing them into an adversarial position relative to people they should consider their equals and peers. Yes, it’s a competition — obviously. And people who are determined to advance in the cutthroat business world shouldn’t be expected to succeed by sharing a drum circle or any of that hippie crap. But they would have already been ruthless enough in assessing their opponents’ weaknesses and playing on them without adding an extra layer of “I’ll show him women are just as good at selling lemonade on a New York street corner”; maybe if “The Apprentice” had existed in 1965, it would have been revolutionary to pit male and female executives against each other, but in our day, men and women already do the same kinds of jobs, so why send us back to the dark ages?

Equal opportunity offenderThe current team-splitting gimmick is just as offensive to both sides. For instance, the promos for this season of the show weren’t exactly balanced. There were quick cuts of the Book Smarts-ers listing where they matriculated (as if that were something that college grads generally announce upon introduction). But we saw a lot more of the Street Smarts-ers asserting that they had worked hard (harder, it was clearly implied, than their opponents) and hadn’t had anything “handed to” them (as if it wasn’t possible that some people on the Book Smarts team had disadvantaged backgrounds or got through college on loans and work-study). So, the prejudice against the Book Smarts team was that they’d be a passel of smug jerks, obnoxiously rubbing their educations in everyone’s faces.

But the team division doesn’t favor the Street Smarts-ers either. While the lack of a post-secondary degree is nothing to be ashamed of, it may also not be something that these contestants are accustomed to divulging in their real working relationships. Grouping them together and pitting them against a team of people society has trained us to feel are their superiors may have the effect of galvanizing them to prove their skills (and, indeed, Net Worth has lost only one teammate so far to Magna’s three). It also may have the effect of making them feel inferior, instantly putting a chip on all their shoulders.

One team appears to have cultural advantages over the other, basically. Which makes Book Smarts the “men” of this season (using the model established in the first two), and the Street Smarts the women. And so we’re either going to root for the disadvantaged minority to rise up and overcome its oppressors (Street Smarts mounts a coup and topples Book Smarts!), or trust that the rules of the patriarchy will not be broken (Book Smarts quashes the Street Smarts rebellion!). How should we expect Mark Burnett to divide the teams next season? Caucasians vs. people of color? Straights vs. gays? Spaniards vs. Basques?

It doesn’t help those of us viewers who did happen to graduate college that the Book Smarts team is made up of such a bunch of jackasses — and not especially “smart” ones, either; in the last episode alone, Magnans used the words “unorganized” (it’s “disorganized,” Stephanie) and “mediorocracy” (unless that was meant to be “meteorocracy,” Michael).

Once the first task of the season was revealed to involve promoting a new sandwich at Burger King, one didn’t have to wait long before the first joke of the “college dropout”/“flipping burgers” variety made its offensive appearance, which made it all the more satisfying when the Book Smarts team got stomped. The second episode had one Book Smarts-er, Verna, completely cracking under the pressure, finally just taking off and wandering around New Jersey before Carolyn had to go after her with a butterfly net; Verna spent the rest of her time on the show acting as though she was on barbiturates and finally just up and quit at the top of Episode 3. The episode went on to feature altogether too much of Danny, Book Smarts’ polyester-clad troubadour, and mercifully ended with his termination and last (we hope) freestyle acoustic rap.

(And, just as an aside: both the tasks Magna has lost so far have rested on Danny’s stated gift for creative thinking and brand management, but for an alleged “Marketing Technology Firm Owner,” Danny completely sucked at everything advertising-adjacent. If his time on the show hasn’t lost him a few clients, there is no cosmic justice.)

Clearly, we’re being manipulated into pulling for the Street Smarts team. They work well together and appear (at this early stage) to be a group of very talented, capable people. Furthermore, the first two “Apprentice” winners — Bill Rancic and Kelly Perdew, a couple of college-educated white dudes – didn’t exactly change the face of corporate America, so if one were a gambling sort, one might start sizing up the women of Net Worth as the season’s likeliest winners.

Whichever of this season’s crop of Apprentices does win will probably be just as deserving as any other reality-show winner. When it’s all over, though, that winner may regret not having the chance to hit a home run without a corked bat; certainly, it would have been more interesting for the viewers to watch a fair match where all the players were competing to the best of their ability instead of wasting so much energy measuring their di…plomas.

Tara Ariano co-created and co-edits and .