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Martha’s ‘Apprentice’ gets a bit crazy

Forget doing business: Jim and Dawn are at each other's throats

Talk about truth in advertising.  When "Apprentice" executive producer Mark Burnett wrote in a letter that this week we would see "the most obnoxious character since Omarosa," he wasn't kidding.

At some point you have to believe that Jim, the vicious motormouth on Martha Stewart's flavor of "Apprentice," must be doing a shtick. No one can goof their way into being that self-consciously destructive on national TV.

It's not just that Jim is ruthless, though he certainly is. (After Martha canned project manager Jeff in the premiere, Jim bragged, "I just sent a man home and I basically did it myself. I'm the architect.")  It's that he devotes nearly all his energy to strategizing about how to screw over his teammates, and almost none to the task at hand.  He is the poster child for an "Apprentice" run that has thus far highlighted some truly disturbing behavior.

This week's task was to run a retail flower shop. Again the creative posse, Matchstick, came up tremendously short — earning half of what Primarius did. Given how much time and energy Matchstick spent refereeing Jim and his nemesis Dawn, and how badly the tension between the two frayed at project leader Chuck's nerves, it's amazing they sold any flowers. 

This week's episode wasn't about selling bouquets. It was a descent into full-bore lunacy.

Neither team offered a particularly brilliant strategy to sell their wares.  Matchstick relied on Chuck's floral-design expertise for inspiration, and he opted for a minimal strategy of selling fresh tulips. Good concept, bad execution.

Primarius (still hate that name) had an even more bizarre notion. "Why not a celebrity florist, right?" asked Jennifer. Perhaps California prosecutors like her are fascinated by high-profile floral arrangers, but they don't make the same headlines as, say, Ludacris or Tommy Hilfiger.

The team finally attracted floral talent Rene Hofstede — "He's designed for Oprah Winfrey, for 'Sex in the City,' this guy is huge," Jennifer gushed. But project leader Carrie signed off on stratospheric price tags ($150 for a single arrangement) and team members out on the street, barking out, "celebrity floral event today," didn't exactly improve things.

Hofstede summed it up perfectly: "Feels to me like a total fly-by-night operation."

Ditch the pigtailsMatchstick's concept seemed promising at first.  Chuck wanted to minimize the amount of scrambling, so he focused his team on a simple concept: market the tulips as freshly imported from Holland.

But they totally mucked up the Dutch angle with a tackyriffic plan to send out women dressed in Little Dutch Girl garb and pigtails, which doesn't exactly scream classy.

Jim threw more wrenches into the plan when he insisted to Chuck they canvass local hotels to market the flowers.  Bethenny nearly ripped the phone out of his hand. She scored points for telling Jim: "No one wants to talk to you because you're insane!"

It all wore Chuck down to the point that, totally frazzled, he announced he was stepping down and "leaving the loft."  The whole team — Jim included — struggled to pep Chuck up and convince him to continue.

Was Jim doing this out of some sense of basic decency?  Of course not.  "I really didn't want Chuck go because the reality is, he's showing his weaknesses and it's something I'll be able to expose."

Jim's nemesis Dawn didn't fare much better. She, Marcela and Bethenny changed into slinky black dresses and headed out into a Manhattan evening to tout tulips to random drivers and passers-by. Then she kvetched about Jim's idea to buy a $4 bottle of Brasso to polish up the door hardware. Said Dawn: "Hustling like a whore to get people to buy frickin' tulips, and then to have Jim tell me that I'm not working, this is the single most desperate day of my life." Quite.

Primarius, meantime, was saved only when Howie stepped in and convinced Hofstede to drop prices. The florist agreed and flowers started flying out of the shop. 

In a nice twist, Martha's prize for Primarius stomping Matchstick ($1,886 to $969) was to assign them community service, helping plant a garden at a Chelsea housing project. Sarah completely missed the ex-convict irony when she deadpanned, "I think Martha was trying to teach us that rewards are not always about taking ... She does a lot of community service herself and she wanted to give us that same experience."

Betting on conflictAll of this was just frosting for the Jim-Dawn battle royale. Since both have been too damaged in front of Martha to win, you know they're both set to go down in massive flames. Better than Chris getting tossed last season on Trump's "Apprentice." Better than Omarosa.

You can only assume that Burnett had the foresight to know that these make for a storyline with momentum. He and Martha have a tough road ahead: The premiere drew just 7.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen, a weak showing for NBC and even worse than Trump's ho-hum ratings last Thursday.  Given the contestants' general lack of business savvy so far, it may be the best thing he's got.

As Matchstick prepared for the boardroom, Jim came fully unleashed, calling Dawn "a virus," "a roadblock" and a "cancer." (Dawn returned the favor, calling Jim "a huge brick wall to progress.")  Chuck wimped out by refusing to take sides, but at least he was immune to Jim's bizarre attempt to suck up. "Chuck is an eloquent, beautiful man"?  Ugh.  When Jim called out to Chuck, "I love you, I love you," after an unsuccessful one-on-one, you could feel your skin crawl.

The only clear-eyed Matchsticker right now seems to be Marcela, who was lurking at the doorway during Jim's chat with Chuck and said, "I know how he feels about gratuitous cruelty ... he likes it."

An apt assessment of a man who proudly boasts to the camera, "I could possibly be the most cunning person on this team."

'Revolting'In the conference room, Martha and Charles Koppelman lit into the Dutch-girl idea. "If someone in my company suggested that I would say it's real tacky," Martha said.

Most of the conference time, though, was devoted to the Jim-Dawn meltdown, and Chuck's obvious inability to contain it.  Jim feigned anger when Chuck blamed himself for the loss, but only as an excuse to launch into Dawn, who clumsily tried to list her meager accomplishments.

The crowning moment for the evening came as Bethenny blubbered, "I'm so embarrassed in front of you right now I want to cry."

Martha's response, in the show's most quotable moment: "Cry and you're out of here. Women in business don't cry, my dear."

That's the Martha we know. It's unfortunate she's been saddled with this motley crew, since she clearly wants to talk about brand-building and management.  But her business messages have been drowned out by the endless sniping, which has moved right past tragedy and straight on to farce.

Still, Martha got in a few don't-you-whine-to-me moments, even invoking her prison sentence as proof that she "made the best of a very, very difficult situation."

The axes are clearly being ground for Dawn, who contributes almost nothing to Matchstick besides comic relief, and Jim, who everyone wants to see go down in flames. Burnett has found his Cruella de Ville for the season. As Chairman Charles summed it up, "What a revolting development."

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