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For her 'Apprentice,' Martha's all business

A stylish Stewart tells her hopefuls to keep their focus on the customer

Given how well-known Mark Burnett's "Apprentice" format is to most viewers, the little things were most notable about the premiere episode of Martha Stewart's incarnation.

So much was familiar:  The faux-urgent music and quick cuts, the gratuitous crane shots, the pacing and format.  Differences were small, and yet they spoke volumes.  Donald Trump's skyscrapers and baroque interior design were replaced with horses, fabric swatches and sweeping shots of open paint buckets in Martha's palette of colors.  Donald at a construction site was subbed out with Martha in the kitchen. The confines of Trump Tower were replaced by an airy, minimalist loft just down the hall from Martha's office, complete with celebratory cheese platter. The O'Jays' lust for "Money" was replaced with the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams."

But as Martha made very clear to her charges at the outset: domestic diva or no, this competition is still all about business.  In case you didn't get the message, she described the IPO of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia by saying, "I became America's first female self-made billionaire." She paused for a beat, then smiled. "It felt really good."

Rather than divide the teams according to one of the silly Burnett-style mechanisms (boys vs. girls) she let them divide themselves, perhaps one of the most savvy reality-show moves in a while.  The 16 hopefuls came up with an interesting set of criteria, eventually matching the "creative" types against the "corporate" ones.

Given the task — to overhaul a classic fairy tale for Random House — you'd think the creatives would have the advantage.  And Martha was impressed when they unveiled their team name, Matchstick: "I can see that logo," she said.  She was far less impressed when the corporate types revealed their own. Primarius sounds like the sort of formless nonsense word that branding firms get paid a lot of money (by people like the ones on the corporate team) to dream up.

It wasn't nearly that clear-cut, though.  Martha laid out some pretty clear guidelines for the task: "Business lesson No. 1 for me is connecting with your audience."  In other words, creative brilliance be damned; give the people what they want.  She hammered home that theme repeatedly, and in the process made apparent that her empire is hinged on meeting the expectations of her readers and viewers.

After some initial squabbling, Primarius took the lesson to heart, pulling kids in for a focus group and discovering they had a gem in Howie, the former Wall Streeter from New Jersey, who had the children squealing with glee as he read.  There's no doubt Howie's talent at connecting with kids — and don't think Martha wasn't sending a subtle message by having the first set of "customers" being a bunch of Manhattan tots — won Primarius the challenge. (Man, that team name is even painful to type.)

Yet even after a stellar success with the focus group, Primarius project manager Dawna fretted that the creative minds on the opposing team could still win out: "We could do this great story and Matchstick could still win the task."  As it turned out, the corporate types ended up with the fun innovations that dazzled the Random House execs: the elegant design, the first-person voice and the notion of having the beanstalk grown down into the ocean.

Matchstick, meantime, melted down as it became clear that despite being a creative director, Jeff was a lousy project manager. Given that this sort of project essentially describes his job, he had absolutely no excuse. True, his task was made significantly more difficult when Dawn, the team's resident wordsmith, launched a bizarre diva act and demanded a quiet corner of her own so she could think her Big Thoughts.

But rather than try and manage Dawn into competency, 41-year-old Jeff, the oldest of the candidates, acted like a snotty little child himself.  He insisted on steamrolling his teammates, rewriting "Hansel and Gretel" into a rhyme scheme, which the Random House folks singled out as a uniquely horrible idea. For that matter, they were none too impressed by his other notions for updating the tale: making the two young children hate their names, and escape their house. Even Martha said that, as a parent, she was repulsed.

And in a sign that Martha has some valuable lessons to teach on her "Apprentice," when she got Jeff and Dawn, plus Matchstick provocateur Jim, into the boardroom, she immediately zeroed in on the problem. "At our company we need editors who care about quality," she told Jeff.

"You didn't hear me when I said that the main business message was to connect."

Yet even after she dismissed Jeff (using a , by the way, and one that somehow seemed to work in context) she wrote him a handwritten note with some parting advice — a far more gracious move than you're going to see in Trump's world. Note that she told him he was the first "not to fail but rather not to fully succeed." So very, very Martha.

If The Donald's view of business is hardcore, Martha's is somewhat more refined — but with stakes that are just as high. And she has cigar-chomping Charles Koppelman at her side, clearly the hardball player, to bring that Trumpian edge into her conference-room sessions.

Sailing through conflictMartha even handled the show's one previously disclosed conflict with her usual aplomb. Koppelman immediately forced contestant Bethenny to reveal that she was a long-time friend of his daughter and had dated his son. (Yet Bethenny claimed she had no idea Koppelman, Omnimedia's chairman, would be involved with this? Yeah, right.) Koppelman quickly, and tactfully, put Bethenny in her place: "If you're a great apprentice, you'll have the same opportunity anyone else has to win or lose."

The only thing holding Martha back, frankly, are the constraints of Burnett's production.  The show's framework still feels a bit too close to Trump's, and yet Martha evokes a different vibe — one that we'll hopefully see emerge in coming weeks as the show finds its footing.

As for the competitors, Matchstick seems fraught with enough problems to choke one of Martha's very well-groomed horses. Dawn is still around.  She got 12 hours to rest while her teammates scrambled to finish their hack job of a children's book, then threw a hissy fit when Jeff wouldn't let her go get a banana. (What, 12 hours weren't enough to get a snack?)  Rather than backing down, she snapped back, "Do you want to pick out my wardrobe today too?" The creative posse also has loose cannon Jim, who manages to be offensive and ineffectual all at the same time.

Perhaps that will give Primarius (can't we just call them "Corporatude" or something?) a few weeks to relax, but they had their share of sniping too.

If Martha can just keep the worn-out reality tropes at bay (she's already done away with some of the most clichéd "Apprentice" gags), it all might make for a compelling bit of TV.

MSNBC.com lifestyle editor Jon Bonné writes about both food and television, so he gets a double dose of Martha.