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L.A. ‘Apprentice’ throws in some new twists

Say what you will about NBC’s “The Apprentice,” but its strong production values make it one of the best-constructed, most visually appealing reality shows. Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he knows how to make an entrance.

At the start of “The Apprentice 6,” both of those were apparent.

After leaving a rainy New York City, thunder rumbling on the soundtrack, Trump arrived in sunny, bright Los Angeles, an obvious illustration of the series’ transition from the unappealing old to the delightful new. The music perked up, and so did Trump. He introduced the show much as he always has, although this time, as he talked to the camera, he was wearing sunglasses and driving a convertible.

That car, however, appeared to be much higher than every other car on the road, and Trump was only halfheartedly driving, probably because it was on a flatbed or otherwise being towed.

That’s not an uncommon way to get a clean, safe shot of someone driving in a film or TV show. However, the sight of Trump gliding above the streets of L.A. was an excellent introduction to this, the sixth season of Trump’s reality show.

New York was an integral part of “The Apprentice” in a way that Los Angeles just is not. Shots of hilltop mansions and surfers navigating waves don’t have the same rhetorical impact of New York’s towering skyscrapers and densely packed cars and people.

They just don’t say, “I am a metaphor for Donald Trump.” They say, “Donald Trump is using me for ratings.”

The location is not the only dramatic change that was introduced Sunday, as the series debuted in another new timeslot. The most visible changes are those parts of the show that have evaporated.

Gone is Robin the receptionist, whose role in the show consisted entirely of telling the candidates when they could enter the boardroom. Now, Trump speaks to them over an intercom, saying, “get your asses back in here.”

Also absent, at least for the first episode, was the overwhelming, suffocating product placement for that week’s sponsor, although multiple companies have paid to have their products and companies represented this season. The first task took place at two nameless car washes in L.A., where teams had to manage the location for a few hours.

George and Carolyn, who was fired in real life, are also both missing, replaced by one person, Trump’s daughter Ivanka. At 25, she’s the same age or younger than the candidates, and is much more willing to challenge the b-school, type-A crap that comes spewing forth from their mouths.

In the boardroom, which is now warmer and brighter, Ivanka told about-to-be-fired candidate Martin, “I don’t like the way you talk, the way you project yourself. I feel every thing you say is rhetoric ... and no hunger, no passion, no fire.” Agree or disagree—Martin clearly disagreed—she has a clear point of view, which is more than her father usually offers in the boardroom. He still picks up on tiny, seemingly insignificant little things and hammers away at them.

For example, project manager Frank, who’d brought Martin back into the boardroom with him, praised his competitor, saying Martin was smart. Trump was horrified, because in his world, there are good things and bad things, and holding two apparently contradicting thoughts in one’s brain is not permitted. Trump couldn’t believe that someone had complimented their competition, and relentlessly insisted that Frank must be an idiot for saying such a thing.

Trump continued until Ivanka helped steer the conversation back to her perception that Martin was a bad fit for the Trump Organization, which may have been difficult to discern after just a few days, but at least her rationale had more support than a wet tissue.

The other chair in the boardroom is occupied not by a Trump Organization yes-person, but by the winning project manager from the other team, a twist that makes “The Apprentice” more of a strategic game than it has been before. Winning project manager Heidi recognized that immediately, telling her teammates, “I definitely have a bit of a strategy. ... I’m going to try to keep [the weakest link on the other team] there in every way I possibly can.”

In the boardroom, however, Trump basically called her out on that, and she offered criticism of both candidates. In many ways, sitting on the other side of the table led her to act as though she was no longer a contestant, which neither Trump nor Ivanka seemed to think was overreaching as she asked questions and lectured the candidates.

She’s just the first project manager who will occupy that chair, although in another new twist, her team cannot replace her as project manager as long as they continue to win. The new power of the project manager, both inside the boardroom and out, should freshen the show.

When Martin was finally fired, Martin did a sort of double-take, and then said, “What? No, no, no.” Sighing loudly, he added, “This is unheard of.” Well, not exactly, considering he fires someone at the end of every episode.

The candidates were less surprised to learn that, instead of staying in a mansion with the winning team, the losing team would be sleeping in tents in the back yard. The losers are also forced to use flashlights for light at night, which creates a bigger problem for viewers: For us to see them talking with each other at night, the cameras have to use night vision, and that footage weakens “The Apprentice”’s look in a way that it doesn’t hurt “Survivor,” where it is more organic.

The punishment is unnecessary and overdone, but then again, what on this show is not over the top? As the candidates—who are forced to shower outdoors and use port-a-potties—peer over the hedge at the other team lounging in the pool, however, it’s clear that the imparity will fuel fierce competition.

In the wake of all these changes, there’s also a . Trump is still a bad actor, pretending to make telephone calls (“Thanks, I’m heading down now”) while the look on his face says, “Can we get this over with already? I have places to behave irrationally.”

The candidates, too, are like their predecessors, making decisions that seem in retrospect to be, at the very least, questionable. Losing project manager Frank’s manic energy led him to inexplicably spend time printing hundreds of tiny fliers to promote the car wash; as his team members pointed out, had he merely considered their task for a few moments, creating signage would have been a lot more helpful and effective. Duh.

However, some of them are learning: Now they hire people to strip in public instead of . Heidi’s team took advantage of their West Hollywood location by hiring two male model-types to stand on the street, shirtless, to draw customers.

Like executive producer Mark Burnett’s other series, the people who will be targeted for elimination are still highlighted throughout the episode. This week, that was Martin, who introduced himself to Trump by excitedly saying, “I’ll, too, give you a hug if you’ll let me go to the bathroom.” Trump refused the hug offer and made him hold it, and from that moment on, the editing suggested that Martin, an attorney and professor, wasn’t likely to make it to episode two.

At the car wash, Martin, who was otherwise enthusiastic, told Ivanka he was tired, and the camera circled 360 degrees around him. That dramatic illustration of his fatigue and disorientation worked as an illustration of the audience’s plight, too. This new season of “The Apprentice” leaves us both a bit tired of the sameness and both bewildered and excited by the newness.

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

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