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Keys to the castle 

NBC's "The Apprentice' follows reality TV conventions

NBC was once network royalty for its primetime lineup -- "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Law & Order." Nowadays, though, the success of "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "CSI's" ability to produce offspring like a Catholic woman has put CBS on top.

But between it and its Bravo offshoot, NBC may be winning the innovative reality show race. With "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "The Restaurant," and now "The Apprentice," the network has raised the bar from dreck like "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee" and "The Surreal Life."

"The Apprentice" pits 16 accomplished businesspeople in a cutthroat competition to win a position leading one of Donald Trump's subsidiaries. "The Donald" split the yuppies into two groups by gender to whittle down the pool. Though the concept is unique, "The Apprentice" still succumbs to the same themes that run throughout reality TV everywhere:

Dream House: Most reality show accommodations are extraordinary, in some manner. Here, the housing is a handsomely decorated suite in Trump Tower. It's fully furnished with a basketball court. The only denied comfort is room to stretch out while sleeping -- the contestants are relegated to twin beds. But hey, if your next bed could be a pile of money, you would suffer on a kiddie size for a few weeks.

Porn please: Apparently, contestant Kristi Frank appeared in the 2001 movie Red Shoe Diaries 17: Swimming Naked, a softcore, late-night Showtime film. What is interesting is that the producers billed Frank as a principled woman who never compromises her values.

So, the chain between reality TV and porn just got another link. Frank joins Sarah from "Joe Millionaire" (fetish films), Frenchie from "American Idol" (naughty websites) and Ron Jeremy of "The Surreal Life 2" (every porn flick from the mid-'70s to the mid-'90s). And now Playboy is tapping reality stars as cover girls faster than you can say, "Your 15 minutes are up."

The Strong Black Woman: Omarosa Stallworth is a political consultant who pulled herself out of the projects and into a position in the Clinton White House. Despite her pedigree, she quickly submits to the overly sensitive, assertive black woman cliche, unable to relate to the rest of the cast. In one scene, Stallworth is called a hypocrite -- specifically, a "pot calling the kettle black" -- by one of her teammates. Her response: "What did you say about black people?"

The Little Guy Is Crazy (or The "Diff'rent Strokes" Quotient): Contestant Sam Solovey is a sycophant: "[Trump] just shook my hand! My sweaty hand!" He is a traditionalist fixated on the idea of a "Leave it to Beaver" family-life: "When I come home to my parents' house, I am greeted at the door. I am going to sit at the front door until someone comes over to greet me." He is a wildly inconsistent performer: He tries to sell someone a glass of lemonade for $1,000; he falls asleep while brainstorming an ad campaign for executive jets; and he leads his team with extended football analogies.

But don't worry about Solovey. He got the ax last week.

Sexxx sells: The contestants on "The Apprentice" are too money-hungry to worry about hooking up, but sexuality still factors into the show. The women continually use sex as a business tactic: When they sold lemonade on the streets of Manhattan, they included kisses with the deal -- the moralistic Frank even gave her phone number to one customer. Their jet ad campaign comprised shots of airplane parts that recalled genitalia. When they had to negotiate prices for items in a scavenger hunt, they danced, flashed their bellies and pouted. For their fourth task, the ladies wore skimpy tops and sold shooters at the Times Square Planet Hollywood they were managing. They beat the men again, but Trump took them to task for being too trashy.

The creepy host: "The Donald" does not escape criticism here. First off, his image and brand is everywhere, including water bottles strategically placed around the house. One would expect a man to lose an iota of humility for each million he makes. Trump seems to have run out a couple billion ago.

And don't even get me started on that ridiculous combover-cum-toupee-cum-spray-on hair. This may cost me a chance of ever getting an apprenticeship with Trump, but NBC should cart in the "Queer Eye" guys to show Donnie that bald can be beautiful.

"The Apprentice" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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